Who owns your story? If you tell it, does someone else — particularly an author — have the right to use it as source material?
This is the issue at the heart of playwright Donald Margulies’ 1996 play, Collected Stories, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Produced at Peter’s Alley, a fledgling theater company based in Northern Virginia, the two-person production has its strong moments, mostly in the smart, perceptive writing of playwright Margulies, who in 2000 received the Pulitzer for his Dinner with Friends. This version, however, does not live up to the play’s potential.
Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions was founded in 2012 by actor-director-educator Aly Ettman, who named her company after her New York acting instructor, the late Peter Thompson. Her premise for this modest company was that a “professional theater company is one not defined by payroll or profits, but rather by the quality of its productions and the process that creates them,” Ettman told the local publication DC Metro Theatre Arts four years ago.
This production at the intimate 70-seat Theatre on the Run in Arlington provides a good introduction to Margulies if you’re not familiar with this playwright’s sharp and thoughtful works, including a raucous early Loman Family Picnic, which played at the now-defunct Source Theatre Dinner with Friends, and Brooklyn Boy; which Olney Theatre took on in 2007. In fact, Theater J featured a fine production of Collected Stories in its 1999-2000 season, featuring incomparable character actress Halo Wines.
Collected Stories explores the mentor-student relationship and what can occur when the student seemingly surpasses the professor. Ruth Steiner is a college writing professor, who in her heyday wrote poetry and short stories and circulated on the New York Jewish literary circuit: New Yorker magazine writers and editors like William Shawn, novelist Saul Bellow and renowned poet and short-story writer
Delmore Schwartz were colleagues of the fictional Steiner. Set in the early through mid-1990s, the play follows the evolving relationship between Steiner and her young student, Lisa Morrison.
On first meeting, this green, ditzy graduate student seems an unlikely candidate for the serious, perspicacious personality of old-school writing professor Steiner, whose advice is blunt and comments unforgiving. She asks the pigtailed Morrison why she talks like that, noting the vocal tick many young women have appropriated called “up speak,” or ending a sentence on a high note akin to a question.
Yet even with Morrison’s unprofessional, childlike demeanor, Steiner discovers that this ungroomed student has some real talent for story and character and the passion for writing necessary to complete her work. So she takes Morrison under her wing.
The relationship evolves from teacher-student to formal friendship to comfortable colleagues. Steiner at the end of her career hasn’t published in decades, while her protégé is a rising star on the young literary circuit. When teacher asks student whether she had time to read her manuscript, there should be a poignant ache in the role reversal. Ultimately, conflict ensues when Steiner’s love affair with Schwartz becomes fodder for her student’s novel in a blatant appropriation of her teacher’s mid-century, liberal Jewish milieu.
It’s an intriguing premise, but one, alas, that actors Sue Struve as Steiner and Lizzi Albert as Morrison are not ready to tackle with grace, power and subtlety. Ettman has not pushed them to fully inhabit the characters they portray. Struve lacks the staunchness and rigidity of an old school writer teaching an underling and it’s hard to believe her anger when Morrison’s betrayal is revealed. As Morrison, Lizzi Albert, too, doesn’t have the conviction to carry out her character’s ulterior motive of appropriating her mentor’s story. At the heart of Collected Stories is a good story well told, but the result here is a modest production of an otherwise strong play.
Collected Stories, Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions, through May 29, Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Visit petersalley.com for information and to purchase tickets.