A sea of feelings lies beneath Miners Alley's Collected Stories

A sea of feelings lies beneath Miners Alley's <i>Collected Stories</i>
JR Cody Schuyler
Billie McBride and Devon James in Collected Stories.

Donald Margulies's Collected Stories is a small, tight play about a relationship between two women. But beneath the cozy, familiar milieu and the smart dialogue, there are evocative questions, and there's also a sea of feeling. Ruth is a respected and important writer, though her reputation rests primarily on a book of brilliant short stories she produced in her twenties. Now she's middle-aged, crotchety, ironic, and very protective of her status in the literary world. As the play opens, she's awaiting a visit from a student, Lisa, who's coming for advice and to get a critique of her latest short story, Eating Between Meals.

Lisa arrives after a comic bit involving a stuck window and a set of keys tossed down to her on the sidewalk. She's worshipful, puppyish and very nervous. As they talk, it turns out that Ruth, despite her customary and calculated cynicism, has found at least a few scenes and phrases to admire in Lisa's story.

Lisa is employed as Ruth's assistant, and their relationship evolves over the next six years — and through the six scenes of the play. Lisa begins to get published, her own authority as a writer grows — and the balance of power and affection between the women shifts and shifts again. Now the girl who wept when the older writer became angry can defend herself; she can even critique Ruth's writing as a colleague. And Ruth, childless and unmarried, finds herself dealing with a highly equivocal mix of feelings: genuine delight in the success of a protege she's come to see as a daughter, fury that the girl no longer needs her sponsorship to get ahead, envy as Lisa's fame threatens to eclipse her own, and a melancholy awareness that her relevance as a writer is ineluctably ebbing. At one point, she reminisces to Lisa about the most important event of her life, her "shining moment": an affair she had when she first arrived in 1950s New York with the famed and self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz.

Naturally, Lisa steals that story for her first novel.

Many years ago, there was an extraordinary conference in Boulder called The Novel of the Americas and attended by many of the world's greatest authors — from Toni Morrison to Carlos Fuentes to William Styron to Salman Rushdie, who was, at that time, still on the run. Styron read from one of his most acclaimed works, The Confessions of Nat Turner. More than two decades after its publication, this novel was still controversial because Styron had taken on the voice and perspective of a black slave, and some African-American writers felt he had essentially stolen their story. Also present was Maxine Hong Kingston, teller of tales about the Chinese-American experience. She, too, had been attacked, with some well-known Chinese-American writers saying she had colluded with white, racist stereotypes. I remember discussing all this over a very long lunch with Hong Kingston, a gentle and extraordinary presence. Her Oakland home had recently burned down, and a manuscript she was working on called The Fourth Book of Peace was completely destroyed: She first saw the devastation as she drove home from her father's funeral. Hong Kingston's thoughts about the lost stories in that book and her need to let them go informed our talk. She understood the impulse behind all the criticism, she said quietly, but stories are uncontainable and belong to everyone.

I remembered her words watching Collected Stories. But Ruth sees things differently. For her, Lisa's betrayal works on many levels. First, she's furious that the younger woman has taken as her own a very specific milieu, the Jewish literary-intellectual world of the mid-twentieth century — a world she can't possibly understand. She has also snatched away both Ruth's opportunity to write her own story should she decide to, and her right to keep it private. On the deepest level, it's as if Lisa has stolen not only Ruth's identity and her shining moment, but also her dwindling time on earth.

Billie McBride gives a strong, moving performance as Ruth, but I had some problems with Devon James's Lisa. Her acting was often overblown, and she didn't communicate the complexity of a woman who venerates her mentor but is also dealing with burning ambitions of her own. This is a shame, because James has many moments of radiant charm and feeling, and when she calms down, she's compulsively watchable.

 
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