Thoughts & Musings

As the page turns: The battle for recognition fuels a duel between two women writers on stage at 2nd Story Theatre

It is a familiar tale, but never has it been told so compelling on the stage; and probably you’ll never see the story so exquisitely performed as by these two 2nd Story veterans.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 20th January 201520/01/15
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I’ll be the first to admit that on the surface a story about writers struggling to find their place in the literary world may not seem as captivating as that of a terrified young soldier experiencing his first combat; however, in the hands of a playwright like Donald Margulies, the battle for recognition and perhaps even survival in the world of academia can be just as frightening as a night in the trenches, even if not as life-threatening. At least that is the case for established short story writer, Ruth Steiner (Lynne Collinson) and her protégée, Lisa Morrison (Gabby Sherba) in Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” playing through Feb. 8 at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre.

Under Mark Peckham’s precise direction and on a beautiful set designed by the incomparable Trevor Elliott, Collinson and Sherba turn the tale of two writers — mentor and pupil, mother and surrogate daughter — into an epic battle for literary supremacy as a new star rises from the ashes of a fading giant. It is a familiar tale, but never has it been told so compelling on the stage; and probably you’ll never see the story so exquisitely performed as by these two 2nd Story veterans. Brash and brave, broken and bitter, neither actor ever falters in portraying the complexities and vulnerabilities of these two fascinating women.

From the opening scene when Steiner gives Morrison the key to her apartment (and a whole lot more), Collinson and Sherba engage in an intricate battle of professional and psychological one-upmanship. In the beginning, Steiner doesn’t even recognize Lisa as the student she has selected to mentor based on a sample of her writing; she tells Lisa that she actually thought she was somebody else.

For Morrison’s part, she is a shy, ardent supporter of the master whose work she has adored since her teens. She is all frumpy and seems small in the beginning, engulfed in Costume Designer Jessie Darrell’s baggy semi-athletic apparel with a backpack slung over her shoulder and wearing her aspirations on her sleeve. Steiner, on the other hand, is the picture of professional competence, decked-out in muted gray slacks and blouse and an unbuttoned sweater. Her dress is precise, but the open sweater leaves her heart vulnerable as she tells Lisa about a tragic love affair she experienced as a young woman.

In Act II, the tables have turned; Lisa has just published her first collection of stories; Ruth is reading her a rave review from the Times. Both are elated or seem so; now Lisa seems physically to dominate Ruth, towering over her in a designer dress and heels. Ruth is withdrawn, not the giant she once was in Lisa’s eyes and even perhaps her own. The body language and costumes signal a sea change in the relationship. And things go from bad to worse when Lisa publishes a novel based on the story Ruth told her about her lost love of years before.

The two explore a minefield of heretofore unrecognized psychological dimensions and perhaps irreconcilable character traits that may destroy their relationship in a scene that you’re not likely to soon forget. Whether adoring or abhorring each other, Collison and Sherba are mesmerizing.

“Collected Stories” is a play that takes you inside the mind of a writer; and, like a bad neighborhood, it’s not a place where you want to go by yourself. But the combination of Peckham’s direction and brilliant performances by Collinson and Sherba make sure you never get lost and emerge with a clearer understanding of what writers sacrifice to live their lives through the worlds they create. Good stuff! Don’t miss it.

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