MONTPELIER – The passing of the torch is never a simple matter. In Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” a venerated short story writer watches as her protégée – and friend – begins to usurp her place in the limelight. It proves a major challenge for both and fascinating to watch as ambition, passion and love conflict.
Green Room Productions opened its production of this 1996 Pulitzer-nominated drama, Friday at the Unitarian Church’s downstairs theater, with an intimate, personal and riveting performance that left its characters – and audience – with unanswered questions. After repeating Saturday, the production moves to Warren’s Phantom Theater Aug. 18, 21 and 22.
In “Collected Stories,” the successful short story author Ruth takes on Lisa, one of her most talented students, first as an assistant and then as protégée. A graduate student, Lisa is a product of her time (the ‘90s), affluent but coming from a troubled childhood and broken marriage. Through her stories, which she is working on with Ruth, she explores the traumas as well as the human foibles of her past.
As their discussions go deeper, Ruth begins to reveal herself. As a young Jewish virgin from the Midwest she was caught up and overwhelmed with Beat Generation, drugs and “free sex,” of 1950s Greenwich Village. Reluctantly she admits to Lisa a short but memorable affair with a famously tragic poet.
As Lisa begins to prosper, first with a published story, then a successful collection, she begins to drift away from Ruth. But when Lisa reveals intimacies learned from Ruth in her first novel, matters come to a head. In a dramatic confrontation, honesty, ethics and friendship are all put to the test.
This powerful story is told in vignettes over a six-year period. In this Green Room Production, directed by Joanne Greenberg, Maren Langdon Spillane as Lisa and Ramona Godfrey as Ruth sparred with endearing wit, reassured with warmth and battled with unfettered passion, all with an air of authenticity.
Godfrey’s Ruth is a salty but caring woman who hates revealing herself, while Spillane’s young Lisa just can’t unload herself fast enough on her new mentor. Although there were some minor missteps, their gradual change, Lisa as she gains power and Ruth as she loses it, was both effective and deeply touching. Though hardly virtuous, both characters emerged as sympathetic.
The physical production fit the Unitarian Church’s stage (originally built for the Montpelier Theater Guild) and was simple, yet professional, and effective. After some 30 years teaching theater at U-32 High School in East Montpelier, Greenberg is beginning to create fine professional productions under the moniker of Green Room Productions.
“Collected Stories” proved excellent theater and powerful storytelling. More would be welcome.