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The Writing Life
Chamber Theatre's compelling "Collected Stories."

Sarah Day and Laura Frye in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's "Collected Stories." (Photo by Mark Frohna)

It’s a quiet, unassuming moment that passes in a blink, but it neatly contains the most profound idea in Collected Stories, which opened this weekend in a deeply moving production by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

In it, Ruth Steiner and Lisa Morrison embrace center stage. Steiner is a respected fiction writer for whom a phone call from “Ed” Doctorow is no big deal. Morrison is her star student, who has begun her own rise through the literary ranks. She’s just received word that Grand Street, an A-List venue for short fiction, will publish her story. It’s a first; and the news is a surprise to Steiner, for Morrison submitted it without her teacher’s knowledge, and without a letter announcing that her star pupil deserves consideration.

As the scene ends, the bruised egos are brushed aside, and the two share a genuine moment of triumph. But as they embrace, the warmth in Ruth’s face changes unmistakably to reflect the cool and dreadful grip of mortality.

Donald Margulies 1996 play is about many things—the struggle of the creative life and the ego-armor that goes with the territory; the thrill of the creative impulse when it lands on its feet; the messy—and sometimes ethically challenged—process by which life becomes art. But it is at its most moving when it tackles the biggest question: How do we deal with the most profound and devastating limit of all—the march of time?

The march of time is everywhere in Michael Wright’s beautiful production. And in Marguilies’ play. A little touch of immortality is the goal of any author, of course (“a few inches of space on a library shelf as Ruth modestly puts it”). And that goal drives both the characters. Sarah Day exudes an easy confidence as a writer who has been a part of the New York intellectual scene since the 1950s (think of Grace Paley, perhaps). But she also touchingly shows the vulnerability that lies beneath the assurance, the knowledge that you’re only as good as your latest work. Laura Frye finds the graceful arc of Lisa’s maturation as an artist and a woman, even as she pushes the early scenes as the eager student a bit too hard. But she also shows (with help from Margulies’ great writing) the uneasy student behind the mature writer, which is essential to the story’s gripping conclusion.

That conclusion unfolds in a final scene that runs on a little too long, but it’s almost necessary to allow the story to touch on the myriad themes that Margulies tackles in his play. There is plenty of anxiety and of influence within Lisa and Ruth’s evolving relationship, but the production is far more than an intellectual piece of literary criticism. It shows the blood and soul behind our drive to tell a memorable story, and the very human complications inherent in that intersection of art and life.

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