Katie Lietz as Lisa Morrison and Linda Rabin Hammell as Ruth Steiner in Matrix Theatre Company's "Collected Stories." Photo: Megan Buckley-Ball

'Collected Stories' Benefits From A Careful Read

By Carolyn Hayes

The two characters of playwright Donald Margulies's "Collected Stories" are both fiction writers. Consequently, this show largely concerns the process, the business and the repercussions of telling one's own and others' stories, invented or inspired by real events.

Although the characters engage in spirited debate about some aspects of their work, one point of clear agreement between them is the importance of text and context - the details of word choice, the veracity of both characters and moments, and the prose's ability to hold up to scrutiny. It's a value that director Molly McMahon evidently shares, and indeed, Matrix Theatre's final mainstage production of the season is all the better for its dutiful attention to every facet of this rich and rewarding script.

The play begins with a tutorial session between established writer and professor Ruth Steiner (Linda Rabin Hammell) and graduate student Lisa Morrison (Katie Lietz), held in the instructor's Greenwich Village apartment. The acolyte is dazzled to be in the actual home and workspace of her idol, and although the actors do fine work through the introductory beats, the design performs just as much heavy lifting in establishing character and relationship. In particular, Kirstin Bianchi's costume design not only attains the lived-in humanities professor aesthetic, but also spearheads Lisa's aspirational attempts to strike the right balance of "professional" and "student," choices that are all borne out onstage. Properties and set designer Kate Orr presents a gently eclectic artist's domicile, with artistic and literary emphasis as well as tactile and edible details, but without overwhelming the dialogue they're intended to substantiate. In the same vein, lighting and sound design (by Neil Koivu) largely exercises restraint, complementing the production's ebb and flow, but always in step with the text.

McMahon's attentive direction pulls these complementary elements together into a vibrant chronicle of a superior-subordinate relationship over months, then years. Every choice is in utter harmony with the script, peppering mild foreshadowing and character revelations through interactions that are ripe with authenticity. The self-referential angle of a playwright dissecting a writer's struggle with who ultimately owns a story, the subject or the auteur, is in plain view for the viewer to contemplate. Yet at the same time, these two actors so fully inhabit their characters that their ownership of their lives and work cannot be called into question.

And it's on the strength of these performances that the production achieves its impressively entertaining, provocative heights. Hammell purely dazzles in a role that might as well have been written for her, capitalizing on the promise of the text with an oddball's inclinations, an artist's unpredictable temperament, and even the manipulative contrition of a long-influential figure who feels her power waning. Lietz answers in stride with meticulous affect, conveying the psyche of a maturing scribe in moments of tongue-tied stupor, aggressive toadying, counterfeit familiarity, and cascading self-doubt.

Together, the cast and director drive the production's nutshell plot insistently forward, with glancing comedic blows that balance gorgeous dramatic scenes of connection and confession. As teacher and student take on new dynamics, interacting as employer-employee, mentor-apprentice, peers, and even friends, threatened conflict bubbles ominously under the surface, boiling over to great effect. What happens between these individuals touches on the craft of storytelling, the nature of ownership in art, and the line between honoring and pilfering. But above all, their story feels personal and its stakes bitterly high, with wrenching developments that don't promise to cleanly resolve.

As an artistic endeavor, "Collected Stories" is a compelling and competent drama, whose appreciable intricacy is given reverent attention by all involved. As a treatise on the craft of writing, McMahon and company prove the maxim that a good writer is a good reader, delivering a production that succeeds by its dedication to unpacking and upholding its author's every textual and subtextual inflection.

'Collected Stories'

Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 16. 2 hours, 10 minutes. $15-20. 313-967-0999. http://www.matrixtheatre.org

MI Marriage Trial

Michigan Same Sex Couples Demand Respect And Equal Treatment

Michigan Leaders React To Feds Recognition Of Marriages

MI Marriage: Schuette Asks For Full Appeals Court Review

The Stay Delayed Allows 315 Couples To Wed In State

Gay Marriage Defines Schuette's Reelection Campaign

Snyder Says Schuette Going Against Trend

Sixth Circuit Continues Stay

Michigan Marriage Ban Struck Down

Michigan Makes History With First Marriages

Elected Officials, Advocates Petition Schuette To Drop Marriage Aappeal

Pictures from Ingham County - Getting Married

Pictures from Oakland County Clerk's Office - Part 1

Pictures from the Oakland County Clerk's office - Part 2

Pictures from the Oakland County Clerk's Office - Part 3

Pictures from Washtenaw County

White Nationalist Group Files Brief Supporting AG's Appeal In Marriage Ruling

Discredited Witness Part Of Right-Wing Cabal

Schauer Celebrates Overturn Of Michigan Marriage Ban

Equality Michigan Circulating Petition to Drop Appeal

Why Are Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette Wasting Michigan Taxpayer Dollars On A Costly Appeal?

Michigan Marriage Ban Co-Author Goes 'Moral'

BTL's Wedding Expo: Like Pride in April

Snyder Says Marriages Invalid

Elected Officials, Advocates Petition Schuette To Drop Marriage Appeal

Request To Remove Stay Based On Process And Substance

Schuette Lies To Satisfy Political Base

DOCUMENTS: The decision, the stay, and more

BREAKING: Holder Asked To Recognize Michigan Marriages

Michigan Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

BREAKING: Sixth Circuit Court Of Appeals Issues Temporary Stay On Michigan Case

BREAKING: Same-Sex Couples Across Michigan Get Hitched

BREAKING: Judge Friedman Declares Michigan's Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

Judge Could Rule Late Today In Mich. Marriage Ban

Michigan Marriage Trial: And Now We Wait

Editor's Viewpoint: Our Long Journey To Justice

Federal Marriage Case Decisions Outside Michigan In Circuit Court of Appeals

Peers Distance Themselves As Regnerus Takes The Stand

Marriage Supporters, Protestors Brave Cold At Courthouse

Highlights From Michigan Same-Sex Marriage Hearing

Brown Says Schuette Instructed Clerks To Defy Court

Michigan Marriage Equality Trial Begins Second Week

Marriage Equality Trial Opens : Science v. Fear

Michigan Marriage Center Prepares State For The Possibility!

Michigan Marriage Case Begins

A Trial Full of Experts: Incredible and Not So Credible, In Hazel Park Case

like us on facebook follow us on twitter follow us on google+