After opening the Founders' Theatre with a ten actor Elizabethan staging of "Coriolanus" that excelled through stylization, speed, scope, opulence and immediacy, Shakespeare and Company's second production on the three quarter thrust configuration demonstrated that the new theatre is also a comfortable space for a small scale work of contemporary American naturalism. Lauren Kurki's set design blended the abstract and architectural elements that dominated Shakespeare's classical epic with the local and domestic specificity of one particular New York writer's apartment -- a cluttered desk, a coffee table, a worn chair, a bright oriental rug-- by her use of books. There were literal books as props for the characters' literal use, decorative and identity proclaiming books arranged on ten foot floor to symbolic ceiling shelves against the set's back wall, and expressionist books as space defining design units in place of the living room's side walls, oversize books sculpted in the beigey-gray of the theatre itself. A huge central window presented a view of tree branches and skillful lighting leant an impression of the changing seasons in the unseen but imaginatively present city park below. The set located us in a metaphoric, theatrical, space, as well as in a realistic one in which tea may be served and compositions graded, where bonds of intimacy may be forged or shattered.
Besides showing off the versatility of the Founders' Theatre, the brief run of this production also gave Shakespeare and Company's Annette Miller the opportunity to rise to the challenge of a job of acting roughly equivalent in depth if not in scope to "Lear" -- tracing the decline and fall of a powerful and admired figure whose losses to age and infirmity are made doubly painful by ingratitude sharper than a serpent's tooth from a (surrogate) daughter. This harrowing role brought Uta Hagen out of retirement, and won acclaim for some of the Great Ladies of the Stage in London. Miller shirks none of it. Hers is a brave and beautiful performance, rich with physical detail that attests to a hard won knowledge of the vulnerabilities, humiliations, incapacities, aches, pains and terrors that aging flesh is heir to.; and worse, of the anguish of the defeated spirit, when the character's self created structure of meaning is knocked down and rebuilt to another's design. This performance is too large an accomplishment for such a short run. I hope the Shakespeare and Company revives the production in a subsequent season and that more people have the opportunity to see it.
Donald Margulies "Collected Stories" is about the relationship of two writers. The older, Ruth Steiner (Miller), is a university writing teacher who has earned admiration for her perfectly crafted and emotionally truthful short stories, set in the heyday of the post WWII Greenwich Village flowering of Jewish American writers and intellectuals. Steiner's student, Lisa Morrison (Christianna Nelson), accesses that world when she comes to her teacher's legendary Washington Square apartment for a tutoring session and introduces herself as a fervently admiring fan who has read all of Steiner's work. Lisa pleads for the position of Steiner's student assistant-- en route to a position as the childless writer's protégé and heir.
Miller convinced me that Ruth Steiner is real, but the author never quite convinced me that Ruth's real suffering could happen in quite the way he shows it happening. Lisa's behavior doesn't quite ring true, and it is Lisa's behavior that is Margulies' play's plot. Margulies said in an interview that "Collected Stories" was inspired by Stephen Spender's court battle to suppress the publication of novelist David Leavitt's book based on Spender's life, in particular what Spender considered Leavitt's defamatory account of the poet's relationship with a lover. The poet won, but under English law, which is more restrictive about what can be written about an identifiable living person. In an American court, Spender would likely have had no recourse. And even in England, Spender's right to control the story of his own life ends with his death. The dead cannot be libeled.
One of the standard tricks a writer uses in order to work with material taken from life, --either to shift the plot from the specific to the universal or to protect the resulting work from lawsuits-- is to switch the genders of the characters. In the instance of "Collected Stories", I suspect that the transposition of genders is what overstresses my suspension of disbelief. In order to be able to trust the way Margulies has told the story and assent to his exploration of the ethical and emotional "issues" involved in the use of the intimate details of another's life as literary material, one has to be able to believe that Lisa is telling the truth when she claims that she thought Ruth would be happy that her student turned Ruth's secret affair with a dead famous poet-- Margulies, free to name the dead without fear of libel action, uses the name of a real dead famous poet, Delmore Schwartz, as the fictional Ruth's lover-- into a best selling novel of her own. Lisa's intentions were of the best-- she never intended to hurt Ruth. Lisa loves Ruth.
This might not be so hard to credit if the student-mentor relationship were between two men, or a man and a woman. A very young male writer might claim innocent misunderstanding, and pass as obtuse but not ill intentioned. But girlhood is a continual education in the code of confidential friendship, in which every degree of betrayal is suspected, investigated, discovered, categorized, forgiven or avenged. That's what girls are doing, while boys learn to stand up for themselves and suffer in silence. Young as she is in many ways, Lisa is not too young to know that when Ruth tells her about her own student-mentor relationship with Delmore, it is as a confidence. At the same time, Ruth also reveals that not only has she never written about the Delmore relationship, she hasn't really talked about it to anyone, either. Whether the bond between Ruth and Delmore was too sacred to be described truthfully, or too degrading to describe at all, Ruth regarded it as off limits for fiction or biography. Lisa responds at the time as if she understood that by telling her, Ruth was admitting her protégé to a new degree of intimacy, a daughter-like intimacy that would certainly be destroyed if Lisa betrayed Ruth's confidence.
After she has secretly written and published her fictional version of Ruth's story, Lisa claims that Ruth originally confided in her because she wanted to pass on to Lisa the material that she herself had failed to use, as a kind of legacy. This is nonsense, of course. If Lisa believed this, she would either have talked about the novel with Ruth as she was writing it, and make it a kind of collaboration, subject to Ruth's approval; or she would have merely made notes, and postponed writing the novel until Ruth is dead and beyond offense and injury. This is especially the case because Ruth has revealed to Lisa that she has a fatal illness, and that she will need Lisa in a very literal way to help her cope with her increasing disability: But once launched on writing the novel, Lisa is too busy, and too afraid of the nature of what she is working on being discovered, to visit Ruth regularly. Ruth is betrayed: seduced and abandoned.
After Lisa plunders her helpless benefactor in the most callous way, she then shows up at Ruth's apartment door, flush with her ill-gotten literary triumph. Ruth has a chain on the door, and she takes a very long time before getting up to let Lisa in. Miller is acting volumes here. Her whole body language is changed utterly from the vigorous middle aged competence of the early scenes. Ruth is now old. She is in pain, and physically feeble -- but clearly, a dozen conflicting impulses are at war within her before she slowly, slowly, shuffles her slippered way to that door. But although I can see when she enters that Nelson's Lisa has an internal reason for coming through the door, just as I can see that Miller's Ruth has an internal reason for opening it, I can't quite imagine what those reasons might be. I don't believe that Lisa would come, and I don't believe that Ruth would let Lisa in -- the playwright lets Lisa in, so that his drama can have a final confrontation.
Margulies has Lisa add insult to injury, by telling Ruth to her face that she did the cruel and unforgivable thing she did because it is exactly what Ruth taught her to do! In this last scene, Lisa claims that Ruth in her role as writing instructor told her in her role as good student that a writer must have the courage to use people. Ruth made it obvious that an artist's material may be the characteristics and struggles and failings of people close to her. Ruth encouraged Lisa to be ruthless, praising her student efforts when she wrote unsparingly about her family and boy friends and herself. The lesson was that stories collected from individuals can be crafted into literature that the author bestows on everyone -- on a grateful public, on posterity. Naturally, some people will resent being used, and a writer has to harden herself to doing without those relationships. Ruth set the example. She's childless and lonely, her work increasingly neglected, but at least Ruth has the satisfaction of having perfected the work, and of having trained a protégé who will carry the work on.
Margulies arms Ruth to give better than she got, piling irony on irony. Ruth tells Lisa that her putative masterwork is gossipy trash, built on lies, puffed up with turgid love scenes that happened only in her own media polluted pornographic imagination. Ruth's drunk of a lover was impotent-- Lisa hasn't a clue about that relationship, about what it was like to be the young Ruth or the aging poet, or a Jew in New York in the 50's. Lisa's a monster, her book has made Ruth and a great poet ridiculous. The avid public who is buying Lisa's book is tasteless and gullible -- by implication, we in the audience are too, for coming to see this play.
However, I don't think Margulies intended Lisa as a monster, or penned an icy satire in which we are to gloat over Ruth's being hoist on her own petard. I think Margulies set out honestly and bravely to discover and communicate whatever truths he can about the deep and dark questions that truly matter to him as a writer, temptations and ethical dilemmas he has sincerely engaged. He has done so successfully enough to have created one true and towering character that is a talented actress' meat, and successfully enough to draw an audience into facing their own mortal vulnerabilities in some excellent scenes that don't quite cohere as a play. I believe that the author was hoist on his own petard, the structure of a two character realistic drama. Realistically, Lisa would avoid Ruth, not return for a final confrontation. Realistically, we can not know, as we need to know, what is in Lisa's head -- when Lisa is lying to Ruth about her motives, and when Lisa is merely and forgivably self deceived. Lisa cannot confide in Ruth, or the plot doesn't work. But unless Lisa confides in someone -- a third character, or the audience, breaking the fourth wall that the Founder's Theatre very structure reminds us is just a convention, one among many -- Lisa doesn't work. Her reality as a character is sacrificed for the sake of plot. Thanks to the imaginative efforts of Christiana Nelson and director Daniela Varon, this structural flaw is not anywhere near as glaring in the Shakespeare and Company production as it is when one reads Margulies' script. Miller and Nelson play together with such detailed liveliness that while we watch, we believe. It is only in the brief darkness between scenes, or in long ponderings after the final tears and applause, that disbelief creeps in and calls all into question.