emotional and deep
Sarah Day and Laura Frye are outstanding as mentor and student in Donald Marguiles' probing play about the writing life.
Being a writer is difficult. It is a strange and deeply felt desire to expose personal accounts and to reach the heart of surrounding stories. It leaves you vulnerable and with an intense sense of ownership of your ideas.
A young protégé seeking advice from an established writer can further complicate an already complicated literary life. Playwright Donald Marguiles’ Collected Stories, which opened at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Friday, handles the complexities of authorship and mentorship with precision. The performances are exceptional, invoking the complications inherent in creativity.
Collected Stories follows Ruth Steiner (Sarah Day), a renowned short story author who now teaches graduate writing classes. The play opens on Ruth in her Greenwich Village apartment. A student, Lisa Morrison (Laura Frye), drops by for an editing session. Lisa enters as an over-zealous, hyperactive writer desperately seeking the approval of one of her idols.
The appeal of the first scene is subtle humor. Lisa paces around the room, rambles, interjects wildly. Ruth sits on the sofa, barely listening, at times nodding or saying “mm hm,” slowly and with a corrective tone.
They workshop Lisa’s story “Eating Between Meals,” an autobiographical (“really?” says Ruth sarcastically, after Lisa reveals the story’s source) story about Lisa’s struggle with bulimia. Ruth presents Lisa with writerly advice: don’t use so many adjectives, this part is cliché, who is this character, really?
She corrects Lisa’s habit of turning declarative sentences into questions, that all-too-common inflection young women add at the end of their thoughts. “Are you listening to me? Am I being heard?” mocks Ruth, establishing herself as the more knowledgeable and powerful woman in the room.
Throughout the first act, Ruth and Lisa’s mentoring relationship grows. Day and Frye are so convincing in their roles. As an intimidating female role model, Ruth sends Lisa into fits of uncertainty over the meaning of her own work. But when Lisa gets her first story published, awkwardness follows as we feel the power shift slightly in Lisa’s favor.
To patch things up, Lisa asks Ruth to tell her about her great love, with writer Delmore Schwartz. Ruth sits at the kitchen table, rarely looking at Lisa as she remembers her past as an innocent young Jewish girl living in the city in the late 1950’s.
Day’s account of Ruth’s early Bohemian life took me right away from a small Milwaukee theater and into the White Horse Tavern with Ruth as she fell deeply in love with a complicated man. I was in her small apartment above an Italian restaurant, smelling garlic waft through the window with a fun and lovely roommate. I was writing constantly, inspired by the beat poets in my social circle and tumultuously trying to find my identity.
At intermission, I had to collect myself.
The second act jumps forward in time. Lisa again paces around Ruth’s apartment, as Ruth reads the New York Times review of Lisa’s first book of short stories. Although the review is favorable, Lisa dismisses the moment almost immediately and begins spouting concerns about her next move, referring to writing as “the game.” Ruth attempts to steady Lisa as she spins, to no avail. Lisa is convinced that she will become obsolete unless she writes a novel next.
The ramifications are ugly. The final scene of the play is raw, heartfelt and mesmerizing. Ruth repeatedly tells Lisa “if you had asked me…” though we can’t be sure this would have made a difference. The argument between the women is deeply human and heartbreaking, with no simple conclusions. But aren’t all good stories about the complexities?
Collected Stories is a collaboration with Madison’s Forward Theater Company. The play runs through December 16 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. See the full schedule and purchase tickets online or call 414-291-7800.
Lots more to do this weekend. Consult Danielle McClune’s On Stage column for all the details.