- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

When someone tells you in confidence a blazing incident from his or her past, has it been released to the world? Do people have the right to tell their own stories or not?
You may find these questions no-brainers, but the boundary between what is public and private has become blurred in today's confessional, Jerry Springer society.
The right to privacy and to keep a secret are two of the issues explored in Donald Margulies' terrifically thought-provoking play, "Collected Stories," originally presented as part of Olney's Potomac Theatre Festival in 2000.
The play takes place in the literary milieu, but in the larger sense it addresses the issue of how freedom of speech has been garbled into meaning "tell all and don't forget that everything is up for grabs."
In "Collected Stories," Halo Wines plays a venerated fictional author, Ruth Steiner, who painted the town red as a young writer in New York in the 1950s and 1960s and now teaches and turns out marvelous short stories.
Carolyn Pasquantonio portrays Ruth's student Lisa Morrison, a promising writer who worships her. When we first see Lisa in 1990 (the play spans six years), she seems nervous as a bird and desperate for approval, but under Ruth's stern care, Lisa blossoms as a writer and grows more confident. Ruth, on the other hand, lets down her iron guard and becomes more vulnerable as she accepts this young woman into her life.
The two become friends and confidantes, and their relationship takes on the air of an extended pajama party. They even switch places, with Ruth relaxing on the sofa while Lisa sits perched at the writing desk. Lisa publishes a well-received collection of short stories, thanks to Ruth's connections, and suddenly they are equals even competitors.
During one Sunday brunch, Ruth hypnotically confesses her affair with the doomed poet Delmore Schwartz (he actually existed in real life), her "shining moment," as she calls it. Lisa is entranced, but we can see her gears working. Although Lisa may be seen as a monster, the beauty of Mr. Margulies' expertly drawn characters is that an observer finds oneself wondering: "What would I do if a plump pearl of a story dropped in my lap? Would I keep it or share it with the world?"
Lisa chooses the latter, partly because it is such a great story and mostly because of her ambition to make a splash with her second book. Friendship be damned, Lisa wants fame and acceptance among the literati.
The second act largely deals with Ruth's reaction to the betrayal, which takes the form of a novel and not a very good one at that.
Lisa defends herself by saying the book pays homage to Ruth, but Ruth doesn't buy it for an instant. Ruth's hurt and rage are, indeed, magnificent. Miss Wines devolves into some sort of erudite animal, spitting out pithy insults while hunkering down like a cornered bear with hands curled into paws and poised to strike. Miss Wines is scary and wrenching as she howls, "You've stolen my stories. Without them, I am nothing."
Miss Pasquantonio masterfully evolves from a silly girl with talent to an outwardly poised woman, but what is so canny about her performance is how she projects a person who knows so little about herself. Lisa seems truly baffled about Ruth's reaction. She cannot believe this is happening to her at what should be her finest hour. Portraying someone at once so smart and so unaware cannot be easy, but Miss Pasquantonio does it admirably.
The glory of Jim Petosa's direction is that he capitalizes on the intimacy of the space, as well as the intimacy of this friendship and betrayal. He makes us feel part of Ruth's apartment as the friendship evolves and splinters.
"Collected Stories" is a well-made play that sets you thinking: What are we without our stories?

***
WHAT: "Collected Stories" by Donald Margulies
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 2 p.m. May 9, through May 19
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
TICKETS: $30 to $35
PHONE: 301/924-3400
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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