Sometimes less is more—like when only two actresses take the stage and expertly convey a complicated, yet relatable, relationship filled with both mutual admiration and envy—so I’ll keep this short and sweet. Collected Stories is a wonderful, intimate character study of what happens when the student becomes the master, written by a master: the Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
It’s also a subtle push and pull of praise and insults as two women talk and squabble their way through friendship and a falling-out, one that blurs the space between what’s right and what’s wrong.
Ruth Steiner (Sue Struve) is a curmudgeon-y college professor and a (slightly washed-up) writer who was once the toast of literary circles for her short stories, many centered on the Jewish experience. She’s a sassy, sarcastic lady full of regret and wit.
Lisa Morrison (Lizzi Albert) is a sensitive, insecure young upstart who wants nothing more than to soak in the wisdom of her idol. She’s Ruth’s biggest fan girl who, over six years, becomes Ruth’s “darling girl.” She looks like a child and talks like a valley girl whose brain is filled with air. But, her memory is also impeccable, something Ruth will eventually resent.
“I write much better than I talk,” Lisa tells Ruth during their first writing tutorial, “so I should just shut up.” And she does well enough to heed all of Ruth’s advice, including improving the way she presents herself.
Collected Stories is a series of six scenes that unfold over half a dozen years, following the evolution of not just Ruth and Lisa’s relationship, but of Lisa’s growth as a writer who becomes recognized in her own right. Stories is amusing at times, especially Ruth’s and Lisa’s reactions to each other as they figure the other out. Polar opposites are always fun to watch, and, make no mistake, Lisa and Ruth are not cut from the same cloth though both share a reverence for words. Stories is also achingly real.
Like when Ruth is insulted that her protégé doesn’t tell her immediately about her first publication, causing Ruth to crack a bit and release a deep, hidden softness and old pains.
“It was such a terrible shock,” Ruth opens up. “Recognition.”
closes May 29, 2016
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Stories looks at how time, truth, and art change people and their interactions—not just with each other, but also with themselves. Director Aly B. Ettman has managed to give the show a steady cadence that allows Struve and Albert to sink in and savor their words while keeping the audience entranced. Time flies by as Ruth and Lisa become cozier and cozier—beyond colleagues. Struve and Albert are agreeable, even when they argue or are angry. Their likability makes their eventual rift difficult to bear, even to a voyeur. They hold the stage, anchoring the weight of their words with genuine feeling that hooks you.
Of course, Stories has a quietly affecting coda that mirrors so much of what happens in real life when relationships turn in ways we never dreamed. When they become their own story—one with multiple narrators.
In Collected Stories less is more. Six scenes, two actresses, one setting. Yet, it is impactful. Thoughtful, lovely, and sad—but in a way that teaches us we are all the sum of shared experience. For better or worse.
Collected Stories by Donald Margulies . Directed by Aly B. Ettman . Featuring Sue Struve and Lizzi Albert. Produced by Peter’s Alley Productions . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.