Collected Stories Embraces Ethical Ambiguity

There’s an innate moral ambiguity to the art of writing. Authors often write what they know and draw from their own experiences. But what right do they have to the life stories of a friend, a family member, or even a beloved mentor?

Palm Beach Dramaworks navigates this gray area in its new production Collected Stories, onstage through March 5. A Pulitzer Prize–nominated play by Donald Margulies, Collected Stories explores the business relationship, and eventual friendship, between established writer Ruth Steiner (Anne-Marie Cusson) and her student Lisa Morrison (Keira Keeley).

Keira Keeley as Lisa and Anne-Marie Cusson as Ruth in Collected Stories. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

Over the course of six years, Lisa evolves from a blubbering protégé to a promising up-and-comer. Ruth, on the other hand, devolves from a member of the New York literati to a sickly 60-something on the verge of death. Margulies takes five scenes to solidify Lisa and Ruth’s connection before finally bringing the main conflict (Lisa stealing a moment from Ruth’s life as fodder for her first novel) to an emotional crescendo.

Palm Beach Dramaworks attacks Collected Stories’ ethical themes with virtuosity and vigor. While the primary source of friction doesn’t emerge until the end, there are breadcrumbs throughout the play. Ruth encourages Lisa not to censor her creative impulses. Lisa takes Ruth’s advice to be ruthlessly true to her artistic gut. Director Paul Stancato helps his characters hit all these notes while also pacing their interactions so that the ending is an earned surprise.

As Lisa, Keira Keeley personifies bright-eyed enthusiasm. As Ruth points out, Lisa looks nothing like the dark themes she writes about. While she explores the sorrow of suburban American life in her prose, in reality she looks like a WASP princess dressed in floral-printed jackets and flared jeans. She bounces into Ruth’s New York apartment with a bright, nervous energy that causes her to spill her tea (we’ve all been there). Lisa is a demanding role, one that requires Keeley to be vulnerable and naïve, yet dogged and incredulous. Her performance is best enjoyed a few rows back as she has a tendency to be quite big in voice and expression. But it’s her smaller moments—like her self-deprecating snarls and calculating stares—that truly reveal her acting chops.

Keira Keeley as Lisa in Collected Stories. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

A romantic Valentine’s Day dinner date with your sweetheart is a must - and with an abundance of restaurants offering special holiday menus and featured dishes, there’s still time to make a reservation. Here are five of the many options to look for a table.Avocado GrillThis Valentine’s Day, the West Palm Beach eatery’s Chef Julian Gremaud is treating guests to a special appetizer of stone crabs followed by three romantic specials:Lobster Linguini featuring asparagus and mushrooms topped off with a bisque sauce and tarragon Petite Filet cooked to order and horseradish encrusted with truffle mashed potatoes Snapper for Two featuring a salt crust, salsa vérde, and fingerling potatoes Price: Varies. Reservations can be made by calling (561) 623-0822. Chez l’EpicierChef Laurent is serving up a menu of flambé-centric cuisine featuring a variety of aphrodisiac foods and libations for Valentine’s Day. Guests can start their evening with a specialty cocktail, Yquem Bubbles and Kai-Kai Farm strawberry ($25 a glass) and heart-shaped beet and thyme macarons.Appetizer: Trio of baked oysters with cave-aged cheddar and maple flakes, avocado tartare, and a mini asparagus and truffle soup shot ($18 per person) Main course: Lobster and Cognac spaghetti flambéed inside a hollowed-out wheel of aged Parmigiano Reggiano ($120 per couple)Dessert: Grand Marnier pot de crème, flamed at the table ($20 per couple) Reservations can be made by calling (561) 508-7030. Eau Palm Beach Resort & SpaThe resort is offering private oceanfront cabana dining options for Valentine’s Day ($450 per couple, includes a four-course meal plus dessert, along with wine pairings by resort sommelier Levin Glane and a champagne toast) as well as a special menu at its flagship restaurant, Angle.[caption id="attachment_52801" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Chef de Cuisine Manlee Siu's butter-poached lobster (Photo by Guy Ambrosino)[/caption]First course: Cauliflower soup, black truffle Second course: Green Cay Farm Baby Beets with poached green apple, preserved lemon, arugula, and cucumbers; House-Made Pork Rillette Chicharron with Swank Farm green strawberry, watercress, and chocolate mole; Swank Farm Baby Greens with heirloom tomato, compressed watermelon, and radish Third course: “Champagne & Caviar,” granita and strawberry Fourth course: Creekstone Farm Ribeye with pepperonta, crispy rosemary fingerling potatoes, and Eau 1 sauce; Cape Cod Day Boat Scallop with roast oyster mushroom, risotto, and lemon ash Dessert: Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate! Price: $75 per person on Feb. 10 and 11, $95 per person on Feb. 14. Reservations can be made by calling (561) 540-4924.  III Forks Prime SteakhouseThe Sweetheart Menu at this Palm Beach Gardens steakhouse includes the choice of a signature salad or lobster bisque along with two six-ounce filet mignon, accompanied by two six-ounce cold water lobster tails and served with whipped potatoes, cream corn, vine-ripened tomatoes and spring onions, as well as a chocolate lover’s dessert.Price: $160 per couple. Reservations can be made by calling (561) 630-3660.  Vic & Angelo’sThis fine-dining Italian eatery in Palm Beach Gardens is offering a three-course prix fixe menu chock full of delicious treats for the romantic holiday.[caption id="attachment_52805" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Vic & Angelo's Scungilli Salad (Photo by Libby Vision)[/caption]Primo: Artichokes stuffed with garlic breadcrumbs and lemon butter; or Scungilli Salad with poached calamari, shrimp, scungilli, endive, arugula, frisée, roasted garlic, celery, and lemon-infused olive oil Secondo: Lobster Francese served over truffle mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus; Linguini Frutti di Mare (with Maine lobster, Cedar Key clams, tiger shrimp, salmon, calamari, mussels, and San Marzano red sauce); or Braciole (rolled and braised skirt steak stuffed with soppressata, fontina, Parmesan breadcrumbs, roasted garlic, mozzarella, and served over linguini aglio e olio)[caption id="attachment_52802" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Vic & Angelo's Linguini Frutti di Mare (Photo by Libby Vision)[/caption]Dolce: San Gennaro’s Valentine Feast, a shareable assortment of cannoli, tiramisu, zeppole, and biscotti Price: $55 per person. Reservations can be made by calling (561) 630-9899.

Anne-Marie Cusson is charged with a very different task in her portrayal of Ruth. Completely self-assured in her talent and verging on cocky in her teaching, Ruth knows who she is. Cusson’s towering height and immaculate posture highlight her outstanding performance. While she starts out confident, she declines into a fragile entity, beaten by disease and haunted by betrayal. Cusson revels in the opportunity to share Ruth’s weaknesses, most notably her fear of death and jealousy of Lisa. Ruth is the main source of heartbreak in Collected Stories, and Cusson makes the audience feel everything with her—from her pride to her loneliness to her deep disgust in a friendship gone wrong.

Collected Stories offers little closure but is immensely satisfying. With great actresses at the helm, this two-hander is intellectually stimulating and emotionally exhausting. It’s what live theater is all about.

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