Does a writer have a right to create art from the biographical material of another person’s life, particularly if that other person is also a writer? That vexed, emotional and legal question is at the heart of Donald Margulies’ 1996 play Collected Stories, now playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks, a theater bent on smart and provocative storytelling.
Artfully directed by Paul Stancato with brilliant performances by actresses Anne-Marie Cusson (Ruth Steiner) and Keira Keeley (Lisa Morrison), Collected Stories is a play with deep ideas that is so characteristically Margulies, a playwright known for beautifully layered engaging tales, where characters meet and collide, and spark real-life, artistic conflicts.
As in the case of his award-winning Dinner with Friends, which received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Collected Stories was a 1997 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Both literary works deal with similar struggles: tangled relationships, and that fine line creative people cross when the demands of ambition cloud their brilliant minds.
Margulies has said Collected Stories was inspired by David Leavitt’s 1993 novel While England Sleeps and the scandal that followed its publication. The book is said to have been patterned after the autobiographical writings of poet Stephen Spender, who subsequently sued Leavitt leading to the novel being revised.
In writing this two-act play, Margulies perhaps has created the best two fictional characters of his career: Ruth Steiner, an aging, highly acclaimed author who never wrote about her youthful and unforgettable affair with real-life poet Delmore Schwartz; and Lisa Morrison, a student and protege of Steiner’s who, after publishing her first short-story collection under Steiner’s direction, follows up with a novel that draws upon Steiner’s affair with Schwartz.
During the six-year span in which Collected Stories occurs, Lisa gains Ruth’s complete confidence and cajoles her into divulging what had always been forbidden territory: the story of her sad love affair with the self-destructive poet, who died in 1966 at the age of 53. “We watch Lisa throughout the play grow from a naive, little girl to a confident woman writer in her own right,” explains Stancato, who was attracted by the way Margulies’ captured the relationship of the two women: one, descending from the strongest part of her intellectual life, and the other, working her way up to it, respectively.
“The play took place in the 90s, during a time that I was a student,” said Stancato. “I could identify with Lisa Morrison because when you are in college, you are a bit of a blank canvas, ready for your professors to shape you. As life went on, and I became a teacher, I saw myself identifying with Ruth, and how you sometimes gravitate toward certain people that you feel have the goods and you want to nurture them, and help them to achieve their best potential.”
As director of the play, Stancato clicked with both characters: Lisa, a younger version of himself as a student, and Ruth, the older version of himself as a teacher. Armed with a well crafted play, he was able to peel back all the layers, all of the nuances that he gave us as an audience. “As a director, part of the fun is being able to identify those little moments, where a light bulb goes off and a new layer is discovered. That was something to me that was very fun, exciting, and challenging.”
Collected Stories is one of those plays that sparks a conversation. By the end of the play, we ask certain questions: who is right, who is wrong? Do you feel that Lisa was correct in her decision, or do you feel that Ruth was right in reacting as she did? “I think if we are doing our jobs correctly as theater artists, if nothing else, we should ignite a conversation, even if it ignites an argument of sorts, because it is not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about the conversation,” said Stancato.
This play will affect audiences, particularly writers. From a writer’s point of view, you can understand how a writer, especially an aspiring writer, may be initially drawn to the story as it details a writer’s life—our eccentricities, our need to find the right words and a clear voice, and an audience that will listen. And the addiction for more, once you find one. You will enjoy watching Lisa travel the path one day you wish to take. But as you watch both characters develop and see their relationship unfold, you will fall into the same conversation, asking: who is right?
This production will not reveal that answer. But it will leave its audience with a riveting drama between two writers who care for each other deeply, but who fight and compete with each other, trying to prove their worth to themselves, to each other, and to the world. A true writer’s dilemma unplugged.