Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2001.
The are Native American peoples who believed, and may still believe, that photography stole a part of a person’s soul — that every image of you carried a piece of your innermost being with it. In Donald Margulies play Collected Stories Ruth Steiner (Annette Miller), an older Jewish woman who has been a successful writer all of her life, feels that way about her life’s stories. When her young protégée Lisa Morrison (Christianna Nelson) appropriates and publishes a fictionalized version of one of her most intimate and closely held life experiences, Ruth feels that part of her soul has been snatched from her body. It does not help that, at that point in her life, she is also very ill with an unnamed but possibly terminal disease.
Lisa is not cast as the villain in this piece, nor is either woman portrayed as the heroine. They are two writers who need and admire each other greatly, but, like all close human relationships, theirs balances precariously on the point of successful communication. If one party misunderstands the others intentions or actions, the whole relationship crashes to the ground. What Ruth says and what Lisa hears, and vice versa, are the crux of the moral and ethical issue at stake.
Collected Stories was nominated for, but did not win, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was inspired by an incident in 1993 when American author David Leavitt based his novel While England Sleeps on British author Stephen Spender’s 1951 memoir World Within Word. Spender threatened to sue Leavitt for “plagiarizing my life,” and the book was withdrawn from publication. Released in America after Spender’s death in 1995, Leavitt referred to Spender in the preface as “an enemy of the imagination.” The following year Leavitt got even more mileage out of the incident with The Term Paper Artist, one of the three novellas in his collection Arkansas.
Margulies follows up on many of the themes of this real life drama, and the very fact that he has borrowed from other people’s lives to write this play about the ethics of doing just that is deliciously ironic. Both Leavitt and Lisa get in trouble for writing about a time and a culture that is not theirs. In Lisa’s case she has appropriated Ruth’s Jewishness, and Judaism is a religion and a culture which has survived millennia by faithfully passing down its stories. Ruth’s anguished cry of “You took my stories!” is the cry of a people as well as that of a person. In the scene immediately preceding her final show down with Ruth, Lisa is invited to the 92nd Street Y, which is the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, to read from her book – a WASP retelling the tales of a Jewess in the great bastion of New York Jewish culture.
Miller is a strong and real Ruth. The six years that elapse during the course of the play bring Ruth from a healthy and confident middle-aged woman at the peak of her writing and teaching career, to a desperately ill woman struggling with her own mortality – physically and professionally. Miller takes us on that painful journey effortlessly.
Nelson is less skillful an actress. And Lisa is in many ways the less sympathetic character, although, as I said before she is not portrayed as a villain. I was afraid that we were in for an All About Eve kinda evening, but Nelson and Margulies spared us by making Lisa less ruthless and more loveable.
Varon said that she struggled with the best way to present this realistic play on the stage at the Founder’s Theatre, which is a very openly theatrical space. Scenic designer Lauren Kurki has managed to create quite accurately the feel of a New York apartment with only one of the four walls and the door. I was a bit puzzled by the extension of Ruth’s living room with rows and rows of what we in the publishing industry call bulking dummies – bound blank white volumes of various sizes and shapes. This is not a play about books – it is a play about human relationships and art – and I did not see the sense in surrounding Ruth and Lisa in a sea of hardbacks.
My final wish is that Margulies had given this play a different title. This is the second time this season that I have seen a great show with what felt like the wrong title. While this is a play about collecting stories, it is not a collection of stories, and that is what the title implies. Especially presented at Shakespeare & Company, where the Wharton One-Acts are a tradition, and where, in the fall, they will be dramatizing some collected stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, it is difficult for potential audience members to understand exactly what they are going to see.
The Shakespeare and Company (413-637-3353) production of Collected Stories runs through August 4 at the new Founder’s Theatre, 70 Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. This is a thoroughly adult show, in the sense of being intellectual and serious, and youngsters under 16 or so will not really understand or enjoy it.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001