In Donald Margulies’ 1996 Pulitzer-nominated drama “Collected Stories,” two writers, a respected author of short stories and her precocious protégée, find themselves at odds over ethical issues – and they both take it very personally.
“Margulies writes these interesting plays that have strong characters and a lot just in terms of the dynamics, but also have issues. I like that combination,” explains Joanne Greenberg.
Greenberg is directing the two-woman play for her Green Room Productions, with performances Aug. 9 and 10 at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, and Aug. 18, 21 and 22 at Phantom Theater in Warren. Ramona Godfrey and Maren Langdon Spillane star in this professional production.
“Collected Stories” was commissioned and premiered in 1996 by the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California, and was presented on Broadway in 2010. According to Ben Brantley, in his 2010 New York Times review, the play “digs into its engaging tale of aesthetics and ethics with intelligence and sharp, literate humor.”
The drama takes a searching look at the lives of a pair of writers, focusing on their friendship, ambitions, conflicts, rivalries and betrayals. Ruth Steiner is an older, established author, famous for her short stories, who also teaches and advises young writers. When she agrees to mentor eager Lisa Morrison, they both get more than they bargained for.
“This has these really thought-provoking issues without the playwright having stacked the deck on one side. The audience is able to see the complexity of an issue that has no clear right answer,” Greenberg said recently by phone.
“I like that, when a play makes you realize that reality is not black and white,” she said. “I like that he dealt with these issues that are shades of gray, but also that what you’re watching is really entertaining — because you’re watching this very intense, dynamic, lively relationship. And I like that it’s a relationship between two strong women.”
The story takes place over six years, so you see these writers age, and their relationship grow, in very interesting ways.
“They have some really complex conversations — and disagreements — about writing,” Greenberg said. “They also have a very interesting mentor-student relationship. There’s a quote in the prologue of the play that Margulies included from Oscar Wilde, that teaching is in some ways a loss – that every disciple takes something away from his master.
“You get to see that,” Greenberg said. “You get to see the symbiosis in a teacher-student relationship where things shift over time.”
Their discussions also confront some important issues of arts and ethics: When is it appropriation? When is it your own story? And, can you tell someone else’s story?
“By extension, is it an appropriation to tell a story of a different ethnicity or gender than your own?” Greenberg said. “It’s an important question. When is it an appropriation, and when is it an imagination to branch out into other people’s stories?”
Greenberg chose her cast carefully. She had already worked with Spillane, a New York actress now living in Vermont. Godfrey, a veteran of the Lamoille County Players, Waterbury Festival Playhouse and George Woodard’s Ground Hog Opry, Greenberg discovered in one of her own advanced acting classes.
The challenge is that both women can be played many different ways, but the trajectory must work for both of them.
“We talked about some of the pitfalls,” Greenberg said. “I read quotes to them from (reviews of) different productions and interpretations of the two characters. Various critics could find fault with interpretations of either of the two, given where they end up. So we talked about the pitfalls of playing it too much in one direction or the other, either of them. I’m hoping that we keep it more balanced.”
The relationship that they are portraying involves a lot of sparring and competition and clashing.
“But the two actors are completely generous and uncompetitive about dealing with their dynamic,” Greenberg said. “They’re really wonderful together. It’s been really a blast to explore the depths of this.”
Their performance focuses on the psychological realism of the play, and Greenberg’s aim is not letting the physical production get in the way.
“On the other hand, I do like to focus on production values, even in unconventional spaces like the Unitarian Church and Phantom Theater,” she said. “The vestry provides one type of performance space — there already is an ‘apartment.’ The rustic Phantom Theater requires a more abstract approach.”
What is important is what the audience takes away at the end.
“I want them to feel they’ve watched a developing relationship fraught with complications and competition — and affection — and the difficulty of having affection triumph against those odds,” Greenberg said.