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).
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.
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.