by Cynthia Canada
Special to Community
The Bard’s Town Theatre is way off Broadway – in the best possible sense. Its mission is to offer up live theater that you can’t find elsewhere, whether it’s a new play by a Kentucky writer, or a less-often performed work by an established playwright. Thursday, August 24, is opening night for one of the latter, Collected Stories by Donald Marguilies.
The key members of the team collaborating on the production – actors Carol Dines and Lenae Price and director Andrew Epstein – know each other from CenterStage. They all expressed great respect and deep appreciation for John Leffert’s success with the Jewish Community Center’s renowned theater company. But some plays need a smaller stage, a more intimate audience – and Collected Stories is just such a play.
Collected Stories centers on the relationship between Ruth Steiner, a writing professor and respected short-story author, and her student and assistant, Lisa Morrison. Ruth is a no-nonsense instructor, impatient and testy; Lisa – at least in the beginning – is a star-struck fan. When she arrives at Ruth’s apartment for her first tutorial, she can’t stop gushing; she has memorized whole passages from Ruth’s stories. One has the sense that Ruth finally tells her where to get an application for the assistant position just so she’ll shut up and listen.
Over time, Lisa matures and her writing evolves until, in the last act, she publishes first a short story and then a novel – and with this novel, the relative comfort of the women’s friendship comes crashing down.
Ruth, portrayed with blunt realism by CenterStage veteran Carol Dines (most recently seen in W;t), is both put off and mystified by Lisa’s hero-worship, resolutely failing to recognize it as the mirror image to her own, earlier idolization of Beat poet Delmore Schwartz. She quickly takes Lisa in hand, correcting her insecure habit of ending sentences with an implied question mark and challenging her lack of faith in her ability. As a graduate student, Price’s Lisa is effervescently hyperactive, anxiously pushy, and painfully funny. Anyone who ever had a crush on a professor will laugh and wince all at once.
As the play progresses, Lisa gains confidence, matures and succeeds, while the student/teacher relationship evolves. Lisa’s writing comes to borrow heavily from personal stories Ruth shared, raising ethical questions: Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism? If a story is freely told, has the teller given it away? If we call it fiction, how can the characters be real people? Does every author of fiction secretly cross his or her fingers when signing off on the statement that the people in this story are entirely imaginary?
Dines did a scene from Collected Stories at a workshop last year and came home determined to do the whole play. She related to Ruth, who she describes as one of the women around whom she grew up – New York Jewish feminists from the early years of feminism. They were her mother’s friends; she knew them well.
Dines took Collected Stories to Epstein and asked him to direct it. Epstein, who was drawn to the Jewish themes in the story, agreed to her request.
Price, who also is CenterStage’s development and outreach manager, understands Lisa well. As a deeply involved non-Jewish employee of the JCC, she is part of the community, and yet, she says, she is not. There’s a part of Jewish history and community culture that she’s not sure a non-Jew can grasp, no matter how much he or she might want to.
This question of cultural identity is the tie that binds cast and crew of the production. It is the exploration of whether a storyteller can speak in another’s voice.
Performances of Collected Stories are at 7:30 p.m. on July 24-27, July 31, and August 1-3. Tickets are $15 ($12 for students and seniors). The Bard’s Town Theatre, 1801 Bardstown Rd., is on the upper level of the Bard’s Town Restaurant. For tickets, call 749-5275 or visit thebardstown.com/collected-stories.html.