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“Collected Stories” Collects Some Kudos

January 20, 2013

When are aspects of privacy truly private? In the world saddled with social media and a camera on every street corner, the answer may be almost never.

But if you share something in private with a friend, those secrets should be safely kept, right? That may not always be the case, especially among friends who view even the most personal information as raw material for the next play, short story or novel.

Solving this dilemma drives the action in Forward Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, which opened this weekend at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. The two-actor two-act play is a joint production with the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and ran late last year in Milwaukee before traveling to Madison.

The premise is simple. A renowned short-story writer named Ruth Steiner (Sarah Day), who also teaches writing at New York’s Columbia University, takes on young writer Lisa Morrison (Laura Frye) as a student. Morrison, who idolizes Steiner, eventually becomes the older writer’s assistant, friend and confidant. Things get sticky after that.

The play under Chamber Theatre’s C. Michael Wright’s direction, struggles to find its footing during the opening scenes, much as the two characters struggle to define their relationship in a functional and eventually meaningful way. Those missteps may be deliberate either on the author’s or director’s part (or both), because by the end the two actors deliver powerfully in their roles as facets of what is essentially the same character at different points in her life and career.

Day is, as always, a pillar of strength and vulnerability, and through the narrative we see glimpses of a much younger woman struggling to find her way. Steiner achieved a certain elevated status as an author, but still lives simply in her New York apartment without so much as a telephone answering machine to  interrupt a personal and professional stride developed decades earlier. She is very much of an era now past.

Frye presents a wonderful blend of insecurity and affectation that defines youth. Thankfully, she never quite fully grows out of either during the play’s six-year time period and her ascent in New York literary circles, leaving us with a very real character who, having found her way is still not quite sure she deserves to be where she is. The gulf of time separating her from her mentor is never full breached, much to the despair of both characters.

Both actors reveal a painful vulnerability during the plays denouement that speaks more to the realities of life than expected dramatic conventions. Kudos to the author for not wrapping things up with a neat little bow, and to the cast and director for bringing such meaningful characters to life.


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