The mentor-pupil relationship of an acclaimed author of short stories and her most promising student is charted over a period of six years in Donald Margulies’ compelling drama Collected Stories.  Now returning with its original star to South Coast Repertory (where it had its world premiere in 1996), this much awaited revival proves a sterling example of big-stage professional theater at its best. 

Linda Lavin and Uta Hagen are among the renowned actresses who have portrayed writer Ruth Steiner over the ensuing thirteen years, but it is South Coast Rep’s crown jewel of a star, Kandis Chappell, who originated the role, and it is her dazzling performance which takes center stage once again—under the superb direction of Martin Benson and opposite the captivating Melanie Lora. 

It’s a September day in 1990 when 26-year-old Lisa Morrison shows up for the first time on college professor Ruth’s doorstep, or rather three stories below the window of her Greenwich Village apartment. A comic exchange between the two women, Ruth shouting down “My key, my key! I’m throwing down my key!” and Lisa not getting a word the woman upstairs is saying, alerts us that there will be laughter over the play’s six scenes.  Still, the humorous never overpowers the dramatic as Margulies charts the lives of these two diametrically opposed characters over the course of six years. 

Ruth is everything you might expect a 55-year-old single female college professor to be—strong-willed, exacting, self-confident, and somewhat eccentric. She refuses to get an answering machine, yet won’t pick up the phone when it rings … and rings and rings. “If it’s work-related, they’ll call my agent,” explains Ruth to Lisa. “If it’s my agent, she’ll know to call back later; my friends would know the same.”

Lisa is everything Ruth isn’t—shy, intimidated, awkward, fawning.  “It’s so nice to be in a real home for a change,” she gushes, “where a real person actually lives, with real furniture and books and art and stuff?”  The question mark isn’t a typo. Lisa is in the habit of making declarative statements into questions, prompting Ruth to remark, “You’re obviously an intelligent, gifted young woman but it’s really kind of dopey, if you ask me.”

Clearly, Ruth is someone who speaks her mind, and Lisa begins from day one to soak up everything her esteemed and adored mentor says and does. Much of the pleasure in Collected Stories comes in watching Lisa bloom under Ruth’s tutelage, though not always in the most predictable of ways. 

Ruth sees promise in Lisa’s stories, though she won’t go so far as to answer Lisa’s “Do you think I’m any good?” with a simple “Yes” or “No.”  She is at least able to reassure the fledgling writer that she isn’t wasting her time, though “I wouldn’t retire just yet if I were you,” she advises. “You have a lot of work to do. An awful lot. But thestuff, I think is there.”

Encouraged by Ruth’s praise, however faint it may be, Lisa applies for a position as the professor’s assistant, and when we next see the two women, it is eight months later.  Ruth has just returned from testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives in support of the National Endowment for the Arts only to find that Lisa has “straightened up” her desk.  “I didn’t throw anything out or anything,” Lisa assures her enraged boss.  “I just made neater piles.” When a distraught Lisa offers to put everything back the way it was, Ruth bellows “Just leave it alone!” and Lisa crumbles.  Soon, however Ruth is showing a softer side by inviting her assistant to stay for dinner. Could this possibly be the start of a beautiful friendship?

By the time another year and three months have rolled around, Lisa is calling Ruth by her first name and standing up quite nicely for herself in a disagreement about Woody Allen’s then newsworthy romantic-sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s daughter. “Ex-girlfriend’s daughter, adopted daughter,” corrects Ruth, putting up a strong defense for Woody. Not strong enough for the now assertive Lisa, who insists “If he wasn’t her father, her father figure, then.  He’s fucked up a whole family!”

Talk then turns to the story which prompted their first teacher-student conference, the autobiographical tale of a divorced father who takes his twelve-year-old daughter to Disneyland with his new girlfriend—which Lisa has just shown to her not particularly appreciative dad.  When Ruth wonders, “Why’d you show him a story he never had to see?”, Lisa replies oh so casually, “It’s being published.”  Why, wonders Ruth, did her friend not tell her this exciting news until days after getting it? She is after all “the person most invested in your progress and you wait till now to tell me? In a most roundabout way, I might add?”

This little bit of treachery seems to suggest that Lisa may not be the sweet young thing she has first appeared to be, but soon all is forgiven, and Lisa is begging Ruth to tell her about her relationship with Delmore Schwarz, the real-life poet and short story writer who was the fictional Ruth’s greatest love. If only she had seen what was coming, Ruth Steiner might have decided to keep her mouth shut.

In the role of Ruth, Kandis Chappell may not have the recognizable name value of Linda Lavin, who first played her in New York and is scheduled to star in Collected Stories’ Broadway debut next year, but she is well known to South Coast Rep audiences. Having seen and loved her superb comedic work in The Importance Of Being Earnest and Noises Off, I can now report that Chappell is an even better dramatic actress, if that’s possible. It’s hard to imagine Lavin completely disappearing into Ruth’s skin, but this is exactly what the chameleon-like Chappell does. Imperious, curmudgeonly, opinionated, with unexpected bursts of tenderness and vulnerability, Chappell is downright brilliant in the role. When late in the play a weakened Ruth is overwhelmed with rage, her performance ascends to the extraordinary.

The enchanting Lora more than holds her own against the volcanic Chappell, and it is in fact the actress’s girl-next-door sweetness and likeability that makes her Lisa all the more interesting. Is she the person she appears on the surface to be or someone far more calculating than we would ever imagine? With a less sympathetic actress, there might be no doubt.  With Lora, the questions “Is she or isn’t she?” and “Did she or didn’t she?” continue to resound long after the play’s final fadeout.

Collected Stories’ director/South Coast Rep Artistic Director Benson has helmed one out of every four SCR productions since its inception, and his work here demonstrates why he has won award upon award for his work. Actors do not create characters in a vacuum, and Chappell and Lora must owe much of their performances to Benson’s assured direction.

Scenic designer Thomas Buderwitz’s work here is every bit as breathtaking as his sets were for The Heiress and Mauritius. Ruth’s apartment is immediately believable as the home of an unmarried, middle-aged New York professor, with shelves and stacks of books and accumulated paraphernalia Ruth might have picked up during world travel or at the local flea market. It is also one of the most detailed, three-dimensional sets I can recall seeing, with a hallway leading back into a kitchen and another room beyond (we can see into both and believe that they go on well beyond our sight line) and a front door that opens into a finely detailed hall and stairwell. 

Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes reveal Ruth’s and Lisa’s personalities as well as the changes which the twists and turns of their lives bring about. Tom and Donna Ruzika’s lighting and Mark Johnson’s sound complete the production’s absolutely first-rate design.

Collected Stories is the fourth Donald Margulies play I’ve seen. I’m a big fan of his Dinner With Friends (and look forward to my third production of that one next year). Shipwrecked! An Entertainment took me on a rollicking ride of an adventure at both South Coast Rep and the Geffen.  The world premiere of his latest, Time Stands Still, was one of this past winter’s highlights. It is now a real pleasure to finally discover Collected Stories, one of his earliest plays and certainly one of his best. That this great story of two very believable women was written by a man is one more feather in the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s cap. 

Collected Stories had me from Ruth’s very first “Hello-o-o.  Hello?  Up here.”   

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 24, 2009
                                                                           Photos: Henry DiRocco

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