2nd Story Explores Relationships and Writers in Wonderful Collected Stories
Kudos also goes to 2nd Story for continuing to provide great opportunities for actresses. This is their third show this season which features very strong roles for women, something that can be hard to find.by Robert Barossi, Broadwayworld.com
“Write what you know” is a phrase writers hear often and have heard for probably a very long time. It’s also a hotly debated piece of advice, with some saying it’s essential that writers do just that and others saying that writers should ignore it and write about anything and everything. It boils down to the writer’s source material, the fountain of their inspiration. Should they draw only from their own lives and experiences? Or should they draw from the lives and experiences of everyone else around them? And is there anyone or anything that is off limits? These are a few of the central questions in 2nd Story Theatre’s intense, emotional and though-provoking production of Collected Stories.
Written by Donald Margulies, Collected Stories is a rare feat, a full-length play that has only two characters yet holds the audience’s interest and attention for its entire running time. Margulies accomplishes this by crafting a deeply real and believable story about an aging writer and her young protégé. As the student, at first starry-eyed and bordering on obsession, grows into an accomplished writer herself, the complex relationship simmers, then boils, then explodes (yes, it’s a process that takes some time, but sticking with it is well worth it for the audience).
Another rare feat of Margulies’ script is how real and believable it is. His characters feel true and are universally relatable. He never lets them devolve into melodrama or unrealistic antics. Throughout the play, their motivations and responses remain true to who they are as a character and how a real human being would likely act in the situation.
Helping to maintain that feeling of real life is the perfect direction of Mark Peckham. There are a number of traps that could befall a director in this situation but Peckham avoids them all. He never rushes or forces anything, allowing the script and the production time to breathe and live. At the same time, it doesn’t drag because the moments he has crafted feel so natural and organic. He also demonstrates a sure handed skill at creating wonderful stage pictures and using blocking to increase or diminish the tension as necessary.
Along with Peckham’s great direction is the nearly flawless performance of his two actresses, Lynne Collinson and Gabby Sherba. As mentioned, a play with only two characters can be a tough challenge, but these two maintain the energy, commitment and connection to both their roles and each other throughout the entire play. The audience can almost see the ball of energy that’s passed back and forth between the two, whether they are shouting at each other or just actively listening.
Having never seen either actress on stage before, they are both a revelation in this production. Collinson is so believable in the role, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn she used to be a famous writer and ivy league English professor. She also brings an impressive amount of nuance to the character of Ruth Steiner, who journeys from steely-eyed iron lady to emotional wreck over the course of the play. Collinson is able to believably handle all the textures of the character, from cold snarkiness to envy and insecurity all the way to emotional fury.
As the young student, the stunning Sherba offers an equally nuanced performance. Although Margulies doesn’t delve as deeply into the character’s backstory as we might like, Sherba provides hints to the young woman’s past and emotional life, doing so mostly with just her eyes and expressions. She is also intensely charismatic, her brief scene alone on stage is a mesmerizing moment that she carries with skill. As with her onstage partner, Sherba convincingly creates a character’s journey, this time from overwhelmed young wannabe-writer to self-assured adult novelist, albeit one who makes a very destructive choice.
It is that choice that propels the major conflict of the play, and it’s one that every writer will be able to relate to. More than that, it’s a question that should be asked by anyone who, in this day and age, writes a blog or posts anything online. What is off limits? What is ok or not ok to put out there into the universe? Is there a chance that someone will get hurt by writing it? And should the writer even care?
Having said that, it’s not just writers who will get something out of this play. There are a number of other themes worked in skillfully by Margulies. He puts his magnifying glass to issues of family, mentors, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, the passage of time, creativity, mortality, and what happens when we look back on the moments of our lives as it nears its end.
Kudos to 2nd Story’s technical team, who assist in creating the real and believable world of this play. Trevor Elliott’s set design is spot-on, a perfect creation of Ruth’s apartment, with everything you would expect a novelist and English professor to have on hand. Jessie Darrell’s costumes and Steve McLellan’s lights also fit right in, never distracting from the play’s action. Credit also goes to the skilled crew person who kept having to carry lots of items offstage during scene changes and never missed a beat.
One final note, kudos also goes to 2nd Story for continuing to provide great opportunities for actresses. This is their third show this season which features very strong roles for women, something that can be hard to find. No idea if that’s intentional or by accident, but it’s nice to see, either way.