Good theater can result from good stories, good writing, good acting or good directing. All are in evidence in Ensemble Theatre’s 25th season opener, Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories. The play was a Pulitzer finalist in 1997, was filmed for PBS in 2002 and had a Broadway revival earlier this year. ETC’s production is its local premiere.
At its simplest level, the play is about writers, one established and one aspiring, whose short stories are collected and positively received. But the play is also the “collected stories” of Ruth Steiner (Amy Warner), a brilliant but cynical author and curmudgeonly teacher nearing the end of her career, and Lisa Morrison (Corinne Mohlenhoff), an eager acolyte who worships her but ultimately surpasses her accomplishment with an ethically questionable literary move that ruins their relationship.
Their “stories” happen over a six-year period in Ruth’s book-strewn apartment (another believable, realized design by Brian c. Mehring), as we watch Lisa soak up Ruth’s advice — “Art is an exaggeration of the truth” — and appropriate her experiences for her own writing.
I wish Margulies’ script dazzled us with their literary products. What Lisa writes sounds dull and derivative (especially the introduction to her break-out novel in a nervous public reading); an early story analyzed and ultimately admired by Ruth doesn't seem praiseworthy. I found myself questioning Lisa’s skill and Ruth’s acuity as a mentor.
Nevertheless, director D. Lynn Meyers has inspired believable, engaging performances from both actresses. Warner is quick-witted and prickly but vulnerable beneath Ruth’s irascible exterior. Mohlenhoff, a standout at Cincinnati Shakespeare making her ETC debut, brings humor and humanity to Lisa, a role that could disintegrate into a gushing, two-faced caricature.
Collected Stories explores the emotional minefield that must be navigated by mentor and student and by writer and subject in this theatrically engaging story.
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