Chicago Theater Review: COLLECTED STORIES (American Blues Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on May 4, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Ever since Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories premiered at South Coast Rep in 1996, and especially after it hit the Broadway boards starring Linda Lavin in 2010, the one-set, two-character play — being inexpensive to produce — is  seemingly occurring at any given time somewhere in the U.S.A. There is some predictability in Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of COLLECTED STORIES at American Blues Theaterthe plot, which revolves around a classic teacher / protégée relationship, and the true conflict arrives rather late in the two-act play, one which I can call well-written in a convincing, conversational manner, but which lacks of a much-needed arc. Therefore, I could imagine how torturous this play could be in the wrong hands. What a pleasure to report that the mother/daughter directing team of Mary Ann Thebus (who is also an acting teacher) and Jessica Thebus has not only elicited two thriving performances at American Blues Theater, but found numerous beats which nicely fill in the cracks of Margulies’ script.

Ruth Steiner (Carmen Roman), a teacher and past-her-prime short-story writer of some renown, takes aspiring wordsmith Lisa Morrison (Gwendolyn Whiteside) under her wing in her cramped Greenwich Village apartment. Lisa, a major fan of Ruth’s work, is anxious, loud and somewhat annoying at first, but her effusiveness Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of COLLECTED STORIES at American Blues Theaterand determination win over Ruth’s professorial coolness. Ruth takes on Lisa as an assistant and mentors the student; over a six-year period, they become not only colleagues but friends. Under Ruth’s tutelage, Lisa begins to shine and soon becomes a rising star on the literary scene. All is going along swimmingly until Lisa commits a betrayal and the relationship is strained and quite possibly kaput. Whether the betrayal is purposeful, unknowing, or a result of Lisa’s inability to assess the consequences of a total lack of ethics is never fully divulged. Since the conflict is never resolved, it’s up to the viewer to decide Lisa’s modus operandi and the ultimate outcome her transgressions will have on the pair.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of COLLECTED STORIES at American Blues TheatreIt’s a weak ending. The characters go through their requisite changes throughout the script — Ruth becomes warmer, and Lisa becomes more All About Eve-ish, intentionally or not — but the problem is that for the longest time it doesn’t seem to really be going anywhere; when the “shocker” moment arrives well into Act 2, it doesn’t justify the time spent getting to know the characters.

But who cares when you have two actresses at the top of their game and directors who flood the stage with nuance? Both Roman and Whiteside are the epitome of what critics refer to when we say “multi-layered.” Right at the top when Roman (as Ruth) glanced over her glasses at the fledgling Lisa, we see pity, impatience, haughtiness, wryness, and more. Whiteside is a little more surreptitious in her approach; we never quite know what her motivations are as she really plays up the innocence of Lisa. Then, suddenly, she will have in one glance the same pity, impatience, haughtiness, and wryness we saw in Roman.

Given my misgivings about the script’s construction, there is within the play a slew of anecdotal references about writing which is most appealing. Ultimately, it’s a testament to this production when I say that I rather enjoyed myself.

photos by Johnny Knight

Collected Stories
American Blues Theater
Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater
scheduled to end on May 19, 2013
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