Collected Stories, by Donald Margulies, is a soul-stirring tale of a writer and her mentor. Interplayers' second play of its 20th season is a provocative journey of two women -- a young aspiring writer and her teacher. The student, a graduate of Princeton, bubbles into the first scene and her enthusiasm is almost suffocating. The teacher is a droll, middle-aged Jewish writer; she begins to read the student's short story and the two-act tutorial begins. By Scene Two, the student is the teacher's assistant, and the teacher is fast becoming a mentor for the shy, sensitive writer on the rise.
The play hits the audience hard, for it draws us into a real life drama with jagged edges, sore spots and painful moments. It is a very truthful reality. Margulies writes a script that erupts off the page into the kind of drama actors crave, one in which they can sink their proverbial teeth.
As Act One ends and we head into Act Two, playwright Margulies waxes philosophical. His characters engage in heated discussions, a conversation on morals that sets the tone for the remainder of the play. As the relationship between student and teacher develops, their lives intertwine and ultimately divide. It's a familiar theme: the student surpasses her teacher, and the question is: can the teacher handle this spurt of growth?
The intensity grows in Act Two as the young writer becomes published, writes her own novel and faces her mentor in a moment of truth. There were a few scripted moments that I found tedious, where the playwright really wants us to "get it." Whatever "it" is at the moment. The play is definitely the product of an East Coast mind. Margulies forces us to endure certain concepts, but mercifully doesn't dwell on those moments. So we are able to get on with it -- the story, that is.
The entire play takes place in the West Village apartment of the writer, Ruth Stein. Ruth has won a Pulitzer for her short stories. She teaches graduate students at some undisclosed university (Columbia? Barnard? NYU?). The playwright, Donald Margulies, himself won the Pulitzer Prize for drama with his play, Dinner With Friends, in April of 2000. So, there is a moment of wondering if Collected Stories is autobiographical. But Margulies also uses a real short story writer, Delmore Schwartz, as Stein's mentor back in the '50s. And it is the story of Schwartz and Stein that the young student, Lisa, endeavors to translate into a novel, which ultimately undermines their relationship.
The play is a perfect vehicle for two accomplished actors who are, in the vernacular, very process oriented and very well-trained. The actors in this piece need to be well-versed in creating incredibly real characters. The demands on them are intense -- by the end of the play, we know these people. Our impression is that they reveal themselves, strip off the layers and allow us to see the fiber of their being.
Colleen Owens, playing the passionate young Lisa, manages a wonderful transformation from bright-eyed adoring student to accomplished writer able to stand on her own. Nowhere is that brought more home than in Act Two, where she reads from her new book at the 92nd Street 'Y,' the intellectual hub of activity on the upper east side. Alas, her mentor is not present. Lisa has written a beautiful book, born of the stories Ruth has shared with her, capturing the essence and bringing the narrative to fruition. Unfortunately, it is the straw that challenges the relationship.
The mentor, played by Jane Fellows, touches us with her talent, her character's irritability and wry wit. Fellows' last scene is really spectacular. We experience a painful reversal as we see the two women exchange places and their relationship unravels.
The space the play inhabits deserves notice as well. Jason Laws has done a lovely job creating the environment, the village apartment where Ruth has lived for 30 years. The kitchen on the set looks totally real and was a nice touch. For the most part, the costumes work; however, there is one scene where both actresses are wearing similar colors which doesn't work. Yet the suit that Owens wears while reading at the 'Y' is spectacular.
Collected Stories is stimulating; it makes us think about the creative process. It's a moving drama directed seamlessly and acted beautifully. It is a well-written script that makes you think and grabs at your heartstrings. My recommendation is treat yourself to a New York evening at Interplayers theater in downtown Spokane.