Sunday, August 18, 2013

WOBT: "Collected Stories"

In one of its strongest offerings in recent memory, the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is showing Donald Margulies' 1996 Pulitzer nominated two-character play, Collected Stories, directed with confidence by Amanda E. Haldy.

Tracing a six-year relationship between an established writer/professor Ruth [Teri Sweeney] and her young graduate student protege Lisa [Curtia Torbert], Ms. Haldy signals a familiar theme in such relationships by using an on-stage visual projection that quotes Oscar Wilde, in part "Every disciple takes away something from his master"; and it is that "takes away" that reverberates in multiple meanings -- (a) to learn by example, (b) to imitate, (c) to steal -- as we witness their ambitions, conflicts and rivalries as the young woman's confidence grows under her mentor's guidance.

What begins as a tutorial in which Ruth offers sound advice to fledgling writer Lisa's over-eager hero-worship -- "Listen...don't take notes", "Ask the right questions", "Nothing (in writing) is arbitrary", "Art is an exaggeration of the truth", "Don't be autobiographical--we all rummage from others" -- becomes a gradual mutual admiration and trust with each woman confiding in the other to unforseen and disastrous effect. -- At one point, Ruth tells Lisa of her relationship with Beat-generation writer Delmore Schwartz -- her "shining moment" that she has never written about because "some things you don't touch". -- When Lisa's first novel conscripts Ruth's story as a first-person fictional narrative, Ruth feels betrayed while Lisa believes it to be a tribute to her mentor.

Many of us can relate to such a relationship; we've had mentors whom we admire and who tell us the truth for good or ill; and we want to please them while never quite escaping their unintentionally intimidating presences. -- Here, the veteran Ms. Sweeney's thoroughly convincing behavior, her off-handed remarks, her generosity in sharing the stage with Ms. Torbert, her exquisite delivery of dialogue with such natural comfort one would hardly believe she was acting, and the journey she takes in coming to grips with growing older and an unspecified illness, make for one of the most truthful and subtle characterizations seen recently in the River Region.

Ms. Torbert -- an Alabama State University student -- holds the stage with Ms. Sweeney. Though her opening gambits as an over-the-top admirer seem more like a young teenager than a graduate student, they serve as a fine contrast to her development into a more mature woman and a better writer than she was at the beginning. Her transformation in the two hours playing time is so striking that she seems hardly to be the same person, as she has adjusted her voice and posture to accommodate the six year time span of the action.

And together, they produce a convincingly complex relationship that has audiences enthralled.

There are a few things to quibble about in this production: Steven Jay Navarre's excellently rendered set could better reflect the bohemian aspect of Greenwich Village by narrowing the broad expanse of stage and adding more clutter to Ruth's apartment; "projections" that signal each scene contain a lot of unnecessary small print content that is generally covered in the dialogue; scene changes could be more efficient; there are a number of indulgent moments that garner laughs without furthering either plot or character. But none of these detract from its overall strength.