Left, Carol Dines as Ruth Steiner; Right, Lenae McKee Price as Lisa Morrison
Andrew Epstein, who wowed as Dr. Posner in CenterStage’s W;t, proves his versatility as an impressive director and set designer with Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories.
In the realm of live theater, every detail matters in conjuring a breathable, tangible world with intricate characters. Because Mr. Epstein knows the nooks and crannies of the acting world, he is stunningly vigilant in his observation. Not a single element feels superfluous. In a play whose power must be sustained by the magnetism of two actresses, insightful direction carries great weight. The combination of talent both on and off stage makes this small-scale production feel boundless.
From Judaica scattered throughout the set, even before Carol Dines’ delightfully ferocious Ruth Steiner paces with unrest for the first time, you get a sense that this professor is anchored by her history. There are assorted binders with post-it notes stuck to the pages, showing this is a real writer’s home, a writer who has a precise order to her life. Yet, madness swirls amongst Steiner’s routine, her home a relic in itself; typewriter, antiquated phone with no ability to leave messages, and dated yellow wallpaper. This is a woman desperately clinging to her formative years, tinged with the regret of an affair with legendary poet Delmore Schwartz.
Dines plays Ruth Steiner as a turbulent force to be reckoned with, a gruff armor of pride masking a secret vulnerability. No matter the recognition Ms. Steiner attains as a prestigious writer, she will never shake her race against time nor shed her memory as the young, naïve 22-year-old girl who was discarded by her idolized mentor and lover. You will marvel at Dines’ powerhouse performance. With the one-two punch of eyes wild with anger but lip quavering, Steiner is painfully aware that her pride is her undoing, but she is as unbendable in her Miss Haversham-like nature as her comparable setting, powerless against herself.
As mentioned in Collected Stories, you cannot teach raw talent. Seeing Lenae McKee Price’s acting chops quietly explode on stage is one of the best parts about watching live theater. You may have seen McKee Price working as the Development and Outreach Manager for CenterStage. McKee Price in fact only just made her Louisville acting debut in April. She certainly has made a name for herself in the role of Lisa Morrison, Ruth Steiner’s protégé desperate for approval from her literary hero. McKee Price’s star has just burst onto the scene in resplendent glory.
Both Dines’ Ruth and McKee Price’s Lisa have an electric rapport, built upon a compelling tension between the two. It is fascinating to view the evolution of Lisa Morrison, a girl initially as gawky in her presentation as she is elegant in her written persona. Her stylistic changes palpably reflect as she first tries to mimic her mentor, but gradually becomes a writer with her own unique voice. This is a metamorphosis, which Steiner cannot stomach. The role reversal that ensues is hypnotic.
As far as I am concerned, Dines and McKee Price became Ruth Steiner and Lisa Morrison, and I witnessed the course of their six-year friendship. My mind never wandered once. This is a story that grips a hold of you and doesn’t let go.
Which stories are the ones we neatly collect, embellished with each retelling over time? Everyone has the “collected” version and the “uncollected” version of anecdotes. But ethically, when is it acceptable for someone to tell ‘your’ story? Collected Stories ripples with thought-provoking questions that leave you analyzing the play long after the applause fades.
This play was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Award, and once you hear the finely honed, crackling dialogue, it is no wonder why.
Collected Stories will be playing through August 3 at The Bard’s Town. You can purchase tickets for $15 in advance and at a special price of $12 for students and seniors. Call (502) 749-5275 or visit the bardstown.com for more information.
Don’t miss seeing McKee Price as Claire in the acclaimed Proof for The Bard’s Town’s next play.
Top Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Epstein
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/R.Martens