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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Collected Stories — Isis Productions at Walnut 5

untitled (50)Writers tell stories.

Even as a theater reviewer, when prose is secondary to description and considered opinion, I try to make each critique a story, to give the person who comes to, or finds, NealsPaper, a “read.”

From The Bible to “The lliad,” from “Gilgamesh” to “Beowulf,” from “The Canterbury Tales to “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” from the novels of Samuel Richardson and the plays of Richard Sheridan to the works of Rachel Kushner and Rachel Bonds, stories hold us and entertain us. They capture our interest, provoke our thoughts, and convey ideas and experiences that may be individual to a single character or work but that spark common recognition.

In my analysis, the literature that lasts is that which has a compelling story and a character, or three, for which we root or whose fate we long to know.

As a critic, I look for entertainment first. That’s why a flapdoodle, like “Field Hockey Hot,” which I’ll review anon, can be more satisfying than the latest “Macbeth,” also to be reviewed. Anything more than entertainment is a bonus. The aim is art, but art is achieved once in a great while. The lucky thing for theatergoers in Philadelphia is art, in terms of production and theatrical savvy, is accomplished constantly.

Theater is a grand combination of acting, directing, dramaturgy, interpretation, design, and visual as well as verbal imagination. More often than not, it begins with writing. Someone has another story to tell and must, like Chekhov, put it on the page or go mad with frustration.

Ruth Steiner knows that feeling. She is aware of all I’ve said about writing, including how carried away I got while introducing the subject (something of which Ruth would disapprove and demand to be changed).

As the lead character of Donald Margulies’s excellently constructed play, “Collected Stories,” Ruth lives around the stories she has heard and that she and others have created. She is a much published, much lauded author of several volumes of short stories, the kind students are assigned to study and writers to emulate. (Think Doris Lessing or Deborah Eisenberg.) Ruth’s characters are described by her protégé, Lisa Morrison, as getting to the essence of everyday people and celebrating or revealing literarily the simplicity of the small routines and rituals that order their lives.

Ruth is respected. She speaks “writing.” Her conversation is peppered with references to writers. She knows and corresponds with most of the literary lions of her lifetime, including contemporary writers whose work is seen more than Ruth’s at the late juncture of her life in which Margulies introduces us to her. For the purposes of “Collected Stories,” Margulies grants Ruth, or creates for her character, an intimate relationship with the seminal poet and short story writer of the ’50s, Delmore Schwartz.

Ruth does not write novels. The story is her metier, the medium at which she excels. As “Collected Stories” opens, Ruth is doing less writing and more teaching. She conducts a course in creative writing at a New York City university and prefers to have private tutorials with her students rather than hold lectures. The students write stories on assignment but about subjects of their own choosing. Ruth meets with them by appointment to critique their work and make suggestions about how to make it stronger and more in keeping with the writer’s intention.

She is a harsh and thorough mistress. She can question choices of words, the description or use of a character, a plot line left dangling with no resolution, narrative structure, unintended or confused meaning, the wavering of an authoritative voice, and all of the other elements about which writers agonize, usually after the actual composition, when they are reading their story and looking for holes, flaws, and signs of incompetence that make them wonder why they weren’t driven to become electricians. (Excuse me, it’s time for more gin.)

She does this without mercy, strained or otherwise. Writers don’t compromise. They tell their story, warts included, and they tell it fearlessly and without concern for collateral damage.

At least writers on Ruth Steiner’s level do. Margulies paints her to have an eagle eye, a sensitive ear, and a flawless knack for detecting excess, dishonesty, or a pulled punch within the body of a story.

In the Isis Productions staging of “Collected Stories,” at Walnut 5, actress Renee Richman-Weisband brooks no sentimental nonsense as Ruth. She is quick to say what she must, and she makes it clear she only says what she means.

Her purpose is not to coddle students or encourage facile writing. She dishes out praise along with her criticism, but she has no tolerance for the second-rate and will tell a student directly what she thinks of a story, whether it has legs to attract an audience, whether it is original enough to pass muster, and, most importantly, whether there is enough passion or enough of an individual voice to make the story attractive to a reader.

Ruth knows no one needs or asks anyone to tell a story. She must inculcate that for a story to find publication, to be deemed of value by an audience, the writer has to produce something an editor or publisher will recognize as excellent.

Weisband never quibbles or becomes coy as Ruth. She will be as sharp as she needs to be to make her point. She is not a woman who likes sentimentality. Weisband sighs slightly and rolls her eyes when she says to Lisa, “Don’t tell me you’re going to cry,” as she proffers a handkerchief.

Weisband’s inflexible penchant for going right to the heart of a problem or situation adds drama to the already tension-loaded crux of Margulies’s play, a moment in which Ruth realizes Lisa’s first novel, about to make a splashy debut with readings and publicity tours, etc., borrows a story from Ruth’s life, a story she told Lisa in private, one that had to do with her relationship to Delmore Schwartz.

NealBoxEmotion runs high in this scene. Not only because the conflict is intrinsic but because Weisband and Kirsten Quinn, who plays Lisa in this engaging two-hander, have created a bond-like relationship throughout director Neill Hartley’s well-paced production in which the time Ruth and Lisa spend together flows naturally and in which the women come to know and admire each other for more than being writers of high caliber.

Weisband and Quinn touch you because you don’t want to see any segment of their relationship dissolve because of what Ruth regards as Lisa’s betrayal of her personal memory, her personal property, a betrayal that is frankly undeniable. You see it take place in the previous scene, in which Lisa reads a passage of her novel to an audience at the 92nd Street ‘Y.” The actresses raise Margulies’s stakes higher because of the affection each has engendered in you, their audience. “Collected Stories” not only becomes pointed. It becomes heartbreaking because so much amity has been established between the teacher and student, now colleagues as writers in significant print. The diamond hard look at life Margulies has had Ruth convey to Lisa has taken root on the Walnut 5 stage. It is a moment that goes past entertainment or involvement in a story to theater that moves you because so much is suddenly at stake for two characters for which you have come to care even more deeply than you may have perceived.

While Weisband, as the established artist, has to show Ruth’s flintiness, make clear Ruth’s rigorous standards, convey Ruth’s work ethic, and move us to share Ruth’s reaction to Lisa’s disloyalty, Quinn’s Lisa has the more poignant growth as a character.

Ruth holds her tutorials with Lisa at her Greenwich Village apartment, where Lisa is overwhelmed by being in the presence of one of her idols in that idol’s own home.

Ruth is efficiently domestic when Lisa arrives. She makes tea while announcing she has no coffee in her house because she doesn’t drink coffee and doesn’t get much company.

Lisa is nervous. She wants to impress Ruth with her story, “Eating Between Meals,” but she is not ready for the way the veteran writer operates, reading the story aloud and commenting as she goes on this word, that phrase, or that character introduction. She is the novice to a process Ruth has experienced many times, on both sides of the situation, as a teacher and as the author in the presence of her editor.

Quinn plays Lisa’s awkwardness while retaining some measure of composure. The actress does a fine job in gaining poised possession of herself and behaving professionally while showing how much Lisa is daunted by Ruth and stricken with some of her bald pronouncements or challenging questions about “Eating Between Meals.”

Lisa is not shy. Almost before she and Ruth begin their session, she asks the teacher whether she can apply to be her personal assistant, a job she saw listed in the department office.

Ruth tries to discourage Lisa, saying she is an ogre to assistants and many of them leave at a run. Weisband is cunningly arch when Margulies has Ruth refer to herself as “ruthless,” then implying that “ruthless” is exactly what Lisa may want to be before long.

Lisa gets the job, and Ruth and she have occasional rocky times as the fledgling adjusts to her mentor. Hartley is shrewd about the way he has the women’s relationship build. As I mentioned, it’s natural, organic. You see two people getting used to each other, then you see a business and educational arrangement evolve into rapport. Friendship, and true resolve on Ruth’s part to help Lisa find a place in the difficult, unpitying world of literature, follow almost unnoticeably.

Lisa is not always obedient. Her first major acceptance comes when she goes counter to Ruth’s suggestion and sends a story to a small journal the women had eliminated from a list of prospective publishers for Lisa’s prose. We have already seen that Lisa will take matters into her own hands, and we are sort of happy her defiance of Ruth has led to success.

Ruth is not begrudging. She finds some ancient gift of sparkling cider with which she and Lisa can toast Lisa’s triumph and the occasion when they became colleagues. Weisband plays Lisa’s declaration of independence as if Ruth is surprised more than upset about her protégé taking her own route. Quinn just as deftly plays at being apologetic, which you don’t believe Lisa is, while conveying Lisa is grateful that Ruth is taking her maverick move so well. When Lisa publishes her first volume of stories, albeit at 196 pages in large print, the celebration and sense of camaraderie becomes stronger yet. Lisa has done the necessary work, Ruth has guided her, and it seems as if Steiner and Morrison will be connected by some link throughout the remainder of Ruth’s life and the length of Lisa’s career.

You see Lisa’s breach when a second act scene, set two years after the previous sequence, a two-year period during which Ruth and Lisa have seen each other sporadically rather than daily, features Lisa reading at a 92nd Street lectern from her latest work, a first novel to follow her collection of stories. Immediately, we recognize not only Ruth’s story about her time with Delmore Schwartz but some of the exact words, phrases, and imagery Ruth used to tell it. Lisa was keen enough to glean that Ruth, in relating the story, had in essence written it. She will later, in defense of her dubious act, cite her mentor’s admonition, a good one, that a writer should never tell his or her story before he or she commits it to paper. Ruth, as Margulies’s surrogate, says speaking the story out loud dilutes the passion and takes away the freshness from what should be newly minted composition.

Ruth has also told Lisa that she cannot protect people from being angry if they recognize themselves as a character in a story. Lisa has been told by her father how hurt he and his current wife, Lisa’s stepmother, were to read her story in which, at age eight, she meets her father’s new partner in Disneyland. Ruth says writers only have their stories, and they have to tell them as they unfold, in all of their texture. Lisa takes that as a statement that anything one hears is free for the using.

Ruth did not tell Lisa that some subjects are sacrosanct, that one writer telling another about something biographical is not a license to use the material in a work of fiction. Invoking that argument when she does becomes a contradictory assault of sorts because in fact, she was so absolute in affirming to Lisa the right of an author to all stories at his or her disposal, Lisa is entitled to infer that anything in a writer’s world is fair game.

Ruth will later say that once upon a time, writers, especially of fiction, did not depend only on what they knew and actually made things up out of their imaginations. This stings but rings hollow because Ruth’s stories derive so directly from her experiences and observations.

No one has to tell Ruth that Lisa’s novel is about her. Ruth has read a galley of Lisa’s book and knows her story has been poached. The audience realizes Ruth knows about Lisa’s appropriation of her romantic tale when, after her reading at 92nd Street, Lisa goes to Ruth’s apartment and finds the door uncharacteristically secured with a safety chain. When she asks Ruth about this new habit, Weisband acidly delivers Ruth’s line that she only applies the chain when she thinks “burglars may be coming.”

The discussion between Ruth and Lisa is highly dramatic. It covers more than literary ethics, which one can argue Lisa did not violate. Friendship, trust, and freedom of thought and conversation become Margulies’s themes. Ruth tells Lisa that beyond her anger at what she regards as a blatant and inconsiderate betrayal, she is disappointed in Lisa’s judgment about her subject. Delmore Schwartz, she says, has been picked clean as a topic by authors of greater reputation than Lisa. for example Saul Bellow (whose 1975 novel, “Humboldt’s Gift,” is not mentioned in “Collected Stories” but is the obvious reference. A good book, too. “Collected Stories” has motivated me to read it again after about 38 years).

Ruth makes the point that as writers collect stories, they have to know which belong to another individual in a way that doesn’t permit them to be told. She says she told Lisa about her liaison with Schwartz in confidence, because Lisa became a friend and because she expressed curiosity about Ruth and Schwartz after she found a letter from the poet in one of Ruth’s copies of her own published stories. Lisa answers Ruth wanted the Schwartz story told but that it was too close to her for Ruth to write it herself. She argues she was following through on a story Ruth could not manage.

“Collected Stories” covers a lot about writing and life. In making Ruth a teacher, Margulies becomes an instructor, giving tips young writers should note and cherish. In terms of life, the play slyly leaves the classroom and the lessons on literary effort and becomes a piece about two individuals who meet over a common interest and unite because they develop a genuine regard for each other, a regard that might be threatened when tables are turned or when trust is questioned..

Weisband and Quinn express the growth in the writers’ relationship. Weisband never softens Ruth’s advice or temper in regard to Lisa, but you can see their connection change from impersonal and informal to parental and mentor-like. Quinn, conversely, grows in confidence until, when Lisa and Ruth have their set-to about Lisa’s right to Ruth’s story, we see her as an equal and not an acolyte. The women can express their feelings while being on the same footing. Yes, Ruth’s experience rings out and impresses louder than Lisa’s rationalizations for co-opting the Schwartz story, yet while Lisa is hurt by Ruth’s recriminations and upset that their warm relationship may be ended, Quinn shows the younger writer’s maturity through her tears. Quinn;s is a fine-etched performance that illustrates how well the actress understands Lisa and can modulate her conflicting emotions to create a full, complex character.

Weisband finds and expresses Ruth’s warmth and, certainly, her humor, but she is smart enough to be sure Ruth remains consistent in conveying her sarcastic, worldly attitude. She has seen a lot, thought about a lot, written a lot, and rehashed literature with several generations of artists, from Hemingway to Roth. She can control her edge at times, but she can’t blunt it or lose it. Years of honest confrontation with a blank page and a deadline have steeled her and made her as unlikely to turn sentimental as she would claim to be.

Neill Hartley has done an expert job at keeping “Collected Stories” working at various levels. He prepares you for Ruth’s rancor by setting up how close she and Lisa have become. He gives both actresses leeway to blend even the contradictory parts of their character’s individual natures and to advance through his productions as women forming a bond rather than types.

Hartley and Rick Miller have done a fine job imagining and furnishing Ruth’s apartment. Even the knick-knacks looks like ones Ruth would have chosen and not spent a lot of time dusting. The dining room table looks so much like a writer’s work space, you know you’re entering an author’s lair before the show begins. I may have strewn a few more books around. I was curious that the book on Ruth’s coffee table — oops tea table — was a novel by Jane Smiley, who may write about rural Midwesterners with the kind of eye Ruth uses to depict Jewish immigrants of another century.

Bobby Fabulous — really? — chose an excellent black dress for Lisa to wear to her 92nd Street debut. It showed sophistication and elegance with just enough sense of modesty. All other costumes were appropriate to the characters and the occasion.

“Collected Stories,” produced by Isis Productions, runs through Sunday, March 29, at the Walnut 5, the black box theater on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by visiting www.isisperforms.com or www.isis.ticketleap.com.

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