‘Collected Stories’ at Dignity Players by Amanda Gunther

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It is strongly advised that writers never be arbitrary, everything that is done must have a reason. Taking this notion, Dignity Players brings that sense of driven reason into their latest stage production of Collected Stories. Directed by Lois Evans, this compelling piece of stunning drama really sets the stakes of living to task. Are we all not trying to tell our own tale, to make our own way in life, and succeed on our own story? In this story, a famous writer and her protégé discover the blurred lines of when a story is one’s own and when a work of fiction infringes upon reality. The work is impressive, heartfelt, and truly moving and brings a broad sense of relating to everyday life from this esoteric piece of theatre.

Ruth (Carol Cohen) and Lisa (Sarah Wade). Photo courtesy of Michael Lund.

Ruth (Carol Cohen) and Lisa (Sarah Wade). Photo courtesy of Michael Lund.

Set Designer Laurie Nolan crafts an elegant yet eccentric feel to Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment in the intimate space that Dignity Players has provided. The decorations are vividly colored yet muted at the same time, creating a curious juxtaposition between Ruth’s creative side and her serious inspired writer side. Nolan keeps the space clean and simple while still giving it the appearance of being thoroughly lived in; doing a remarkable job with the invisible windows and creating the illusion of spaces both for entering and creating a deeper sense of the apartment itself.

Director Lois Evans maintains a steady pace to the performance while seamlessly handling what could easily be tiresome scene changes. Both actresses have to change costumes to show the passage of seasons between scenes and Evans pumps meaningful upbeat music into these semi-darkened cross-fades where the scenery is modified and the ladies are behind the partition changing. This is both an effective and subtle way to make the changes feel more fluid and not feel as if they last as long as they actually do.

Evans guides a fierce relationship between the two actresses on stage, letting it grow naturally as constructed in the text so by the time the sudden sharp twist in the plot arises it is both shocking yet perfectly placed. She creates evocative moments of visceral feelings toward the end of the production that really drive home the harsh reality of existing in such an uncertain situation. Overall a brilliantly directed production that truly speaks to the masses.

The young and eager upstart young writer, Lisa (Sarah Wade) is the last person you’d expect to find in a harmonious existence with the slightly embittered, but sagely seasoned writer Ruth (Carol Cohen). The chemistry that these two performers cultivate and share on stage is inspiring. Starting from a place of awkward unfamiliarity, with an extreme imbalance of worship and adoration from student to mentor they manage to successfully grow a comfortable companionship, deeper than the average friendship, with honest hints of a mother-daughter relationship in the making.

Wade introduces Lisa to the audience as a quirky and scattered character that transforms into a refined worldly and scholarly figure whose confidence grows as every scene passes. Grounding her character’s initial nerves into subtle but well articulate gestures— like the very internalized gesture of wringing her fingers very close to her body— Wade finds intriguing ways to use her body as an extension of her emotional expressions. The enthusiasm and energy that Wade finds in the character, particularly when gushing her adoration and practical sycophantic worship of Ruth is intense, bordering on exhausting. The eager urge to please is routed deep in her vocal presence and even though it outwardly fades as the play progresses, the underlying intention is still very present.

The interactions that Wade and Cohen share create an intimate world of emotional expression that truly have to be seen to have justice given to its description. There are moments of deafening silence wherein the tension is so palpable between them scarcely a breath can be drawn. They both do an exceptional job of feeding off one another and building excitement as well as tumultuous upset into these heightened moments that spiral to a shocking conclusion at the end of the production.

Cohen is a stellar performer, truly finding the balance of this character halfway between fiery old battleaxe and wizened mentor. Cohen cultivates this well-educated, sharp-tongued woman whose words are infused with her fierce sardonic wit, and eased by her sagely advice. The presence alone that she creates is a force to reckoned with even toward the end when she’s deflated and defeated. One of the most passionate moments in the production comes from Cohen’s last bout of flames, desperately erupting as her candle is all but doused out, giving every last ounce of strength she has to get one last emotional burst through, and with tremendous success she does so. Cohen finds the acerbic strength in her delivery and dampens it with knowledge, creating a brilliant and beautiful juxtaposition between the sarcasm of her character’s defense mechanisms and the rich vulnerable writer inside. A truly stunning performance given and not to be missed.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

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Collected Stories plays through February 1, 2014 at Dignity Players— Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis— 333 Dubois Road in Annapolis, MD. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (410) 266-8044 ext. 127 and by purchasing them online.

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