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Donald Margulies is one of our most interesting and accomplished playwrights, and any production of his work promises — at the very least — distinctive and full-bodied characters and dialogue of great wit, insight, and empathy. The only thing in question will be: Does the producing company do it justice?
In the case of Collected Stories (July 27-30 and Aug. 3-5 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC) the Flying Machine Theatre Co. goes well beyond that minimal requirement. Under the incisive direction of company co-founder Julian “J” Chachula, Jr. and with the splendid performances of Mary Rowland and Whitney Griffin, Margulies’ affecting two-hander receives a production about as fine as it is possible to imagine.
Collected Stories concerns the changing relationship, over a six-year span, between Ruth Steiner, a well-established, middle-aged, Jewish writer of short stories, and Lisa Morrison, her unexpected protégé, with results first celebratory, then dispiriting. Comprised of equal parts bitterness and delight, the play is that rara avis: a rich character study that is also a profound meditation on the very meaning of intellectual and emotional property. Through this often incendiary play, Margulies anatomizes some of the vital questions confronting our literary present: Can one’s private experiences be appropriated by another? Who owns a personal biography? How thin is the boundary between homage and theft? And are the ethical lines that govern our behavior in these matters fixed, or mutable?
Without revealing the details of the play’s dramatic arc (and it seems to me that what’s been said and written already gives far too much of the game away), it is difficult not to come down firmly on the side of Ruth in the matter of Lisa’s stunning betrayal of her — which, in a brilliant stroke, Margulies presents almost casually, causing the breath to catch and the stomach to flop over as realization slowly dawns. Ruth is demanding, mercurial, a bit needy, not always lovable. But her rages have a consistency; her heart recognizes the tiny disloyalties Lisa commits, seemingly without guile, but which—with the generosity of spirit that resides just under the skin — Ruth doesn’t fully comprehend as parts of a more insidiously complex whole until much, much too late.
Lisa, despite her apparent ingenuousness, is a cannibal. She misinterprets that basic imprecation given to young authors, “Write what you know,” not in its original meaning (write what interests you) but as “Write about yourself, your own experiences, and — when those peter out — those of others.” While there does not seem to be viciousness in her actions, there is in them an underlying amorality that is staggering. She seems to feel an entitlement beyond her years, her experience, and her talent. If Ruth isn’t going to write about her abortive love affair with Delmore Schwartz, Lisa reasons, isn’t it fair game for me?
The great irony here lies in the way Margulies depicts Lisa, early on in the play, as outraged by what she considers the deplorable moral lapse of another; in this case, Woody Allen, in his (overly publicized) romantic liaison with Soon-Yi Previn. Yet, when confronted with Ruth’s furious denunciation of her own duplicity, Lisa is gob-struck by the notion that she may be guilty of an equally deplorable sin. She hurts Ruth, and takes from her, with no seeming sense of deliberation, which somehow makes her actions all the more appalling. Yet despite the playwright’s generosity, there are hints that Lisa is far more aware of what she’s doing than she admits, to Ruth and to herself.
Whitney Griffin gets much, if not everything, out of Lisa. Her timing is occasionally a little bit off; when she makes a joke early in the first scene, she doesn’t take a beat to register that it has fallen flat, or simply been ignored. More egregiously, she does not point up the question marks at the ends of Lisa’s sentences, which Margulies cunningly plots throughout her dialogue, so that Ruth can comment on them, and their meanings, at length; when the older woman calls her on it, the moment hasn’t really been prepared for. Otherwise, Griffin’s performance carries about it a sheen of felt reality, and she makes a formidable foil for Mary Rowland’s superlative performance of Ruth.
Rowland, in spite of a slight, occasional, Southern accent, is Ruth to the core. There is not a false movement or misstep in her characterization, which takes in the older writer’s essential kindness as well as her fierce defense of her own, often unexpressed, needs and buried emotional nakedness. She is particularly striking in her moments of rage, which can shear the skin off the spectator. She brings a palpable tension to these explosions, and her incredulous outrage at both Lisa’s unnecessary vampirism and the encroachment of time exist on so subtle a level that we are almost embarrassed — like eavesdroppers to a pain so private our overhearing of it feels obscene.
Danielle MacMonagle, the production’s young set designer, has provided a perfect space to reflect the idiosyncrasies of Ruth’s existence: jumbled bookcases, Victorian sofa, and homey floor-lamps. Only the desk disappoints; its modern simplicity makes it seem not quite the sort of thing Ruth would use. The graphic designer, Andy Cutler, has fitted Ruth’s window with a marvelous, slightly lop-sided depiction of a neighboring brownstone and his contributions, like those of the lighting and sound designers Andy Parks and Kevin Silva, could scarcely be improved upon. David Serxner’s costumes add a sly layer of character as they subtly bounce off, reflect, and finally oppose the women’s increasingly mutable relationship.
This is the sort of play, and production, that can lead to spirited, even contentious, discussion afterward — which seems to me the very best kind of art.
Flying Machine Theatre Co. presents Collected Stories Thursday-Saturday, July 27-29, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 30, at 3 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 3-5, at 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($10 students, teachers, and seniors). 919/594-2615 or via etix at the presenter's site. Flying Machine Theatre Co.: http://www.theflyingmachine.net/productions/stories.html. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308125/.