It has been reported that in his heyday, whenever F. Scott Fitzgerald heard someone tell an anecdote he felt had dramatic potential, the celebrated novelist would pull out a $50 bill and offer to purchase said story on the spot. Cash having been accepted, that fragment of a real person's experience would find its way into one of Fitzgerald's short stories with only slight dissembling. A little money can go a long way toward quashing potential lawsuits, but it doesn't resolve the moral questions about privacy: Whose life is it, anyway? Are our lives lived in the public domain? What claims, if any, can others make on our lives? Did, for instance, Tennessee Williams breach a trust when he transformed his flighty, verbose mother Edwina into the flighty, verbose Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie — without first seeking her approval?
This issue is at the core of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, which was itself inspired by a successful lawsuit brought by poet Stephen Spender against an author who wrote a novel based on Spender's autobiography. Here we meet Ruth Steiner (Nancy Lewis), a respected and popular writer, and Lisa Morrison (Meghan Maguire), one of her fawning yet promising university students. By evening's end — through events that are both surprising and inevitable — a confidence is breached, a trust is broken.
If you like a lot of confrontational fireworks in your drama, Collected Stories might seem like a slow starter; it doesn't turn up the voltage until the final scene. Margulies prefers to write in the mode of William Inge, who once said, "I try to recommend my plays as I would a short trip, to be enjoyed not for the hope of its destination but for what one sees along the way." For anyone willing to look, there is much to see here, for this play is intricately plotted.
Consider, for instance, an exchange midway through Act One. We have already witnessed the awkward first meeting between student and mentor. "I'm a terrible reader," Lisa groans when she learns that the students in Ruth's class will be reciting their short stories aloud. "It's not about performance," Ruth counters. "It's about responsibility, about claiming ownership." (At evening's end — by which time Lisa will revel in reading her prose aloud — these words will assume a haunting resonance.) And we've already been privy to the discomfort that ensues after Lisa becomes Ruth's assistant.
Now, midway through Act One, the two are sharing brunch as they gossip about Woody Allen's seduction of Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. Because this exchange was written by the always-civilized Margulies, even gossip becomes fodder for a discussion of ethics. But the scene's significance is in its subtle conveyance that these two strangers are now friends. By play's end, perhaps only after the relationship has been shattered beyond repair, we realize that Collected Stories is a deeply stirring love story.
The impeccable Orange Girls production has been directed with a sure hand by Edward Coffield, who boldly keeps the action almost as still as words on a page. The performances by Nancy Lewis and Meghan Maguire are beyond reproach. As Maguire's Lisa evolves from timidity to arrogance, her posture is imbued by the straight-arrow egoism of a haughty high-fashion model. At the same time, we watch helplessly as Lewis' imperious Ruth collapses like a stick of butter left on a hot stove. There's rarely a moment when these two gifted actresses are not both onstage together, and there's not a single moment that calls attention to itself. Both women reveal themselves as storytellers serving their author. They aren't required to improve the material or cover up flaws therein; they don't have to show off. They are in true harmony with the story they're telling. This is stage acting of the highest order; it is a joy to behold.
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