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Articles by Jane C. Elkin

Is the theft of your story a crime?

In Dignity Players’ long list of morality plays, Collected Stories is the crowning achievement. When a writing student mines her teacher’s private life for material, artistic license crosses the line from inspiration to confiscation. So says acclaimed author Ruth Steiner (played by Carol Cohen) of the transgression of heretofore-beloved student Lisa Morrison (Sarah Wade). Lisa claims she did only what her mentor taught her.
    Seasoned director Lois Evans’ leadership of a tiny stellar cast through a rich Donald Margulies script could earn this show the kind of recognition Colonial Players enjoyed in 2013: a Ruby Griffith Award for Margulies’ Shipwrecked!
    In the provocative ethical drama at hand, the intellectual professor Steiner has everything and nothing. Having forsaken marriage and children for a succession of young writers she adopts as secretaries/interns, she enjoys literary celebrity, a Bohemian Greenwich Village apartment and bittersweet memories of an affair 40 years earlier with one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, the middle-aged alcoholic Delmore Schwartz. She doesn’t like to talk about that. “Talking takes away the need to write,” she says, though she never does this writing.
    Lisa is a sycophantic graduate student: a bulimic WASP from a broken home who dreams of living Ruth’s life. Four years under Ruth’s tutelage transform her into a literary success with a short story collection of thinly veiled autobiographical tales. Then she panics. She fears she needs a novel to cement her reputation, but a writer writes what she knows and she’s written it all. So she quietly co-opts Ruth’s unwritten love story, shattering the friendship with her surrogate mum.
    In a play where image tells half the story, Cohen and Wade, aided by Jeannie Christie’s costumes, are transformed in a stunning role reversal: Cohen from mature role model to has-been frump and Wade from babbling bumbler to young sophisticate. I cannot imagine any two local actresses who could play Ruth and Lisa better.
    The only disappointments in this production are technical. The many long scene changes break the mood as audience conversation crescendos and time stretches to smoking-break lengths. On opening night, there was also an issue with crackly static in the absence of other sound effects. Both issues, though, can and should be resolved with experience, and neither negates the power of these performances. As added incentive, Dignity hosts poet Merrill Leffler of Dryad Press in a post-show discussion of authorial inspiration and ethics following the January 26 matinee.
    If all writers are rummagers, whose stories are safe?
    Come decide for yourself.

Stage Manager: Pat Browning. Technician: Julien Jacques.
Thru Feb. 1. FSa 8pm; Su 3pm at Dignity Players Theatre at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-266-8044 x 127; www.dignityplayers.org.

Don’t miss this gem of the American stage

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” A decade before coining that phrase, he showed us why in his 1929 debut novel Look Homeward Angel. This thinly veiled memoir of a tumultuous youth in his mother’s Dixieland Boardinghouse made him a pariah in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and a literary star to the rest of the nation. The 1958 stage adaptation by Ketti Frings won every major prize for American drama that year, and it still rings true and relevant.
    Compass Rose Theater’s beautiful production stars a talented University of Maryland grad, Shane O’Loughlin, in the lead role of Eugene Gant. A bookish young man, he yearns for education and escape from his overbearing mother, Eliza (artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne), and his romantic but alcoholic father, W.O. Gant (Gary Goodson) Bret Jaspers costars as elder brother Ben, the cynical voice of experience who urges Eugene to flee. Who can blame them? Life with Eliza, the self-proclaimed “sharpest trader in town,” is no tea party. In a perpetual quest for cash, she puts the comfort of strangers above the needs of her own family, whom she manipulates into doing her bidding.
    Dapper Ben isn’t healthy enough to escape to World War I, as did his brother Luke (Chris Creane). So he helps in Father’s monument shop and passes the evenings at dingy Dixieland with a sympathetic older boarder  named Fatty (Janise Whelan). Big sister Helen (Kathryn Zoerb) and her husband Hugh (Dan Reno) are likewise caught in Eliza’s clutches as near servants. The other boarders are Uncle Will (Ed Klein); old Mrs. Clatt (Nancy Long); her son Jake (Eli Pendry); and a charming new arrival, Laura James (Lindsay Clemmons), who brings Eugene his first happiness and heartache. Dr. McGuire (Richard Fiske) is a frequent visitor to the home as well. Only the notorious Madame Elizabeth (Maura Claire Harford) never crosses the threshold, though she is on good terms with Father.
    From the melee, Eugene’s transformation from guileless gopher to mutineer is remarkable, culminating in a confrontation that will shake you to your weepy bones. Drawing equally on the strength of all the leads, this production gets four stars for credibility: from the sharp period fashions to the missing newels on the faded front porch to the manner of the family’s explosion with love and disdain. The only unbelievable part is Eliza and Father’s tantrum, which is too gentle on the set. I hope they go wild on closing night.

Director: Patrick Walsh. Set: Mary Goodson. Costumes: Linda Swann. Lights: Cecilia Durbin. 2.5 hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Playing thru Feb. 9. Th (except Jan. 30) FSa 8pm Sa Feb. 1 & 8 and Su 2pm at 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

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