Herald Theatre

Review: Susan Budd

Collected Stories by Donald Margulies is an absorbing play that discusses the raw material of writing, the characters and narratives of real people that writers draw upon and subsume in works of fiction.

The issue is one of intellectual property: who owns the stories? Although marriages and friendships may be destroyed by such appropriations, when the original teller of the tale is a writer herself, the battle is to the death.

Ruth Steiner is a professor of creative writing at a New York university who has won renown for her collections of short stories based on the lives of those she deems to be without a voice. Into her life comes a graduate student, Lisa Morrison, afflicted with a severe case of hero worship. The play charts the evolution of their relationship and the shifts in the balance of power.

Ruth is cranky and caustic, a harsh critic but a good teacher. Now in her 60s, she has never married or borne a child and Lisa gradually becomes a surrogate daughter. Their relationship becomes so close that she reveals the "shining moment" of her life, a passionate affair with ravaged poet, Delmore Schwartz. Ironically, playwright Donald Margulies makes his own acknowledged appropriation here, blending fact with fiction, for Schwartz was a respected poet of the 1950s.

Two years later Lisa publishes her first novel, Miriam's Story, in which the central character, a Jewish writer, falls in love with Schwartz. Having written out her own short life in a what she considers to be thin WASP culture, Lisa now feeds upon the richness of her mentor's urban intellectual Jewish milieu.

Ruth questions her right not only to use her own story, but to write, as an outsider, of her culture. The argument rages, with no clear victory gained by either woman. But the issue is fascinating and one that continues long after the play ends.

Elizabeth McRae gives a powerfully intelligent performance, most moving as her strength fades into illness and old age while her spirit remains indomitable. Sara Wiseman is incandescent in her portrayal of the metamorphosis of an ugly duckling into a swan.