‘Collected Stories’ gathers compelling ideas, performances

 
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Ashley Rose Montondo, left, and Maggie Bearmon Pistner are in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “Collected Stories.” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2018 at 3:35 pm | UPDATED: February 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

In a two-character play, each of the actors has a lot riding on her shoulders. A strong show requires stellar performances. Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo show us how it’s done in “Collected Stories” from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Pistner vividly portrays a famous Jewish author (Ruth Steiner), as prickly as she is brilliant, who mentors promising young students from the college where she teaches. Montondo aptly conveys the anxiety and awkwardness of an immature college girl (Lisa Morrison) who desperately wants to impress the author she worships.

That intersection of an aging, irritated diva with a dorky, raw talent sets up lots of plot-driving conflict while grappling with questions of ethics in writing, professional jealousy, the sad march of time and how the events of our lives — and the people we meet — profoundly shape us.

Literary questions about truth and fiction resonate in our era of supposed “fake news.” If an author exaggerates or makes up events when talking about her real life, is that permissible fiction — or lies?  If an author mines her life for people and plot points to turn into fiction, is that acceptable in spite of whom she might hurt, or is it too close to reality?

Every novel has a disclaimer at the front which states that it’s a work of fiction and any character’s resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. But what if the resemblance is NOT coincidental? What if the author steals sensitive and private material from someone else’s life, spewing it out there for all the world to see?

These are questions worth grappling with, and playwright Donald Margulies sets them up well. He also preemptively signals the show’s finale when Lisa tells Ruth that she doesn’t like the ending of her latest story and Ruth replies that real life is not always tidy or happy; it’s messy.

The ending to the play seems unfinished because the relationship between the two characters is not resolved after the final onstage conflict. That feels disappointing, but is in line with Ruth’s (and presumably Margulies’) philosophy on fictional denouements.

In addition to staging a compelling production that she cast brilliantly, director Jennie Ward partnered with talented production artists who add much to the show.

Michael Hoover’s elaborate design of Ruth’s apartment really conveys the personality of the author and gives Ward many different places to play with the characters, keeping the one-set production dynamic. The costume, lighting, sound and prop designers also deserve kudos for bringing the scenes — and ’90s era — to life.

“Collected Stories” is a fascinating show of conflict and ideas with spirited characters — and an ending that doesn’t put a period on their story.

If you go

  • What: “Collected Stories”
  • Where:  Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
  • When: Through March 18
  • Tickets: $38-$23; 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org
  • Capsule:  Compelling performances and ideas

ORIGINAL SOURCE: https://www.twincities.com/2018/02/25/theater-review-collected-stories-gathers-compelling-ideas-performances/