Dignity Players’ Collected Stories
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.