note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
At New Repertory Theatre, Boston stars Bobbie Steinbach and Liz Hayes present a compelling snapshot of a tenuous relationship between a well-known author-professor and a starry-eyed college student with a serious case of hero worship in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ provocative play, “Collected Stories”.
Bobbie Steinbach is magnificent as crusty professor-writer Ruth Steiner. Her every syllable, movement and gesture is captivating. And Liz Hayes is a credible Lisa Morrison, as she metamorphoses from a breathy, eager student to a rising, successful writer.
Steinbach and Hayes strike an ideal balance, under Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s skillful direction. Every detail of this production works like a well-oiled machine. Jenna McFarland Lord’s set, Tyler Kinney’s costumes, Deb Sullivan’s lighting and David Reiffel’s sound design add credence and realism.
And Margulies cleverly forces theatergoers to draw their own conclusion about whether Lisa achieved fame by betraying her teacher’s trust during their six-year friendship. Ruth is a hard-boiled, cynical, lonely writer who confesses to her bumbling student-mentee, Lisa, that she’s alone too much. Ruth even confides she lied to a government committee in Washington DC to achieve a much-needed grant for the college, and urges Lisa to stop selling herself so short - to gain confidence in herself. However, Ruth didn’t instruct Lisa to betray her by gaining her confidence, friendship and affection, then stealing her stories, her identity and coveted secret about her one great love. Memories haunt Ruth. She could never write about them, she tells Lisa. It’s her core, her inner being.
Watching Steinbach slowly release her sarcastic, razor-sharp edge to a more nurturing, caring nature, is divine. She softens, careful to not bruise Lisa’s fragility, vulnerability and pain. Lisa wrote an autobiographically-based, thinly-veiled story about a little fat girl who suffered from bulemia, whose parents were disapproving, and whose self-confidence was sub-zero. Although Lisa visits a therapist, basking in Ruth’s tutelage and friendship is more therapeutic. “It’s a privilege to be breathing the same airspace [as you],” she gushes.
The play progresses like a well-matched ping-pong game. Lisa is increasingly more at ease with Ruth, who affectionately treats her like an adopted daughter. When Lisa’s first story is published in a lesser periodical and garners significant attention from critics, (including a photo spread in Mirabella), Ruth is ambivalent. She’s happy for Lisa, but is she exhibiting underlying resentment or maternal caution? Sadly, Lisa confides her father won’t talk to her anymore, because she wrote negatively about him.
Lisa questions whether she’s a one-story author. Ruth praises her, calling her gifted and intelligent, but encourages her to work hard. Claiming her family background is blah - WASP - Lisa asks Ruth to tell her about her first generation Jewish heritage. Rapt, Lisa listens, taking notes.
And therein lies the rub. Based on Ruth’s beloved personal stories, Lisa writes her first full-length novel, “Miriam’s Song,” Six years later, the mouse has roared, dressed in a sophisticated red dress, rushing from one TV interview to another, while Ruth is struggling with terminal illness, shuttered up in her Greenwich Village apartment. She’s afraid. Her life is slipping away.
When Lisa breezes in, Ruth patiently listens, then rages, “Have you no conscience, no morals?..You crossed the line. I gave you a voice where you had none.”
... “I wanted to honor you. It was my gift to you,” Lisa purrs.
Lisa’s entire life lies ahead of her, filled with promise, but Ruth is wounded, her soul stolen, her life slipping away. Did Lisa exploit Ruth? Is Ruth jealous and unjustifiably angry?
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-person play, written by Donald Margulies, appearing with New Repertory Theatre at Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through Oct. 30. Performances are Wednesday, Oct. 19, Thursday, Oct. 20,27, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; talkbacks after Sunday performances. Tickets, $28-$58; seniors, $7 off full price; student rush, $20. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.