Two of L.A.’s most gifted actresses ignite the stage in The Group Rep’s production of Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize finalist Collected Stories,  giving performances every bit as brilliant as one might expect to see on the stages of our finest regional theaters.

 Collected Stories charts the six-year mentor-pupil relationship of acclaimed short story writer Ruth Steiner (Julia Silverman) and Lisa Morrison (Liza de Weerd), her most promising student, beginning on a September day in 1990.

That’s when 26-year-old Lisa 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 half a dozen tumultuous 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—awkward, fawning, and overly eager to please. “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 the stuff, 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 next we see the two women, eight months have passed. 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, the two friends find themselves recalling the story which prompted their first teacher-student conference, Lisa’s autobiographical tale of a divorced father who takes his twelve-year-old daughter to Disneyland with his new girlfriend—which the author 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 ever 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?”

Still, it’s not long before 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 her greatest love. If only Ruth would write about her life, what a novel that would make!

And that’s about all the synopsizing you’ll be getting from this reviewer, who would rather let Silverman and de Weerd and Margulies take you by surprise as I suspect you will be.

Uta Hagen, Helen Mirren, and Linda Lavin are among the big names who’ve played Ruth opposite such younger luminaries as Samantha Mathis, Debra Messing, and Sarah Paulson, performances against which this reviewer suspects Silverman’s and de Weerd’s could stand up quite nicely indeed, as audiences at North Hollywood’s Lonny Chapman Theatre will be able to discover over the next month or so.

 Silverman is an absolute wonder as the imperious, curmudgeonly, opinionated Ruth, whose unexpected bursts of tenderness and vulnerability endear her to us despite her many flaws. de Weerd matches her every step of the way, from her first entrance, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with the overeagerness of youth, to the self-confident equal she becomes over the course of Ruth’s tutelage and friendship. Since Silverman and de Weerd are two of our most watchable actresses, the biggest challenge of this Collected Stories may well be how to divide one’s attention equally between the two. Performances don’t get any richer or more multi-layered than these two stars’, and if (unlike in some previous productions) neither character becomes the hero or villain of the piece, it is thanks to these L.A. theater pros and their own gifted mentor, director Sherry Netherland.

Collected Stories looks terrific too on the Lonny Chapman stage, Chris Winfield’s budget-conscious but artfully rendered Greenwich Village apartment featuring just the right books and bric-a-brac to give it that lived-in look. Kim Smith and Steve Shaw have contributed (respectively) the production’s very effective lighting and sound designs. Costume designer Emily Doyle has garbed each character precisely as she would have chosen for herself, Lisa’s outfits in particular reflecting the character’s growth over the play’s six-year time span. Christian Ackerman’s subtitle design gives us the month and year of each scene as if typed by Ruth on her portable electric.

Collected Stories is produced for The Group Rep by Alex Parker. Emily Doyle is stage manager.

I loved Collected Stories when I first saw it at South Coast Repertory in 2009, and I loved it perhaps even more this second time around thanks to the up-close-and-personal intimacy a smaller theatrical space can provide. As for its pair of stars, trust me. You’ll be catching two of the finest performances you’ll see all year, and in Los Angeles, that’s saying something indeed.

Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
October 21, 2012
Photos: Sherry Netherland

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