"Collected Stories" at the Mosaic Theatre the Most Incendiary, Can't-Miss Show of the Season

About once a year, a play opens in South Florida that is so good, so rich with life, that I spend the week after opening telling everyone within earshot: Go see this fucking thing! If you only leave the house once this month, go see this play! Missing a great play is very much a tragedy. A play is there and gone, and every time you miss great one, a slice of vital has been denied you forever.

So please, please, don’t miss Collected Stories, running through December 5 at the Mosaic Theatre. Collected Stories is an incendiary play, far more so than you might think possible for a play about two women talking about the writerly life. But writerly lives, like all lives, are as big and tempestuous as the universe to those living them, and like anyone else, writers are defined (and confined) by their talk in ways they seldom understand at the time.

Barbara Bradshaw, with Kim Morgan Dean, is a revelation in Collected Stories.
Photo by George Schiavone
Barbara Bradshaw, with Kim Morgan Dean, is a revelation in Collected Stories.

Collected Stories is set in the New York apartment of a legendary short-story writer, and it traces the arc of her relationship with a young woman who is her student, and then her assistant, and then her protégé -- and, ultimately, her bete noir. Lisa Morrison (Kim Morgan Dean), the younger woman, first arrives at the tidy, warm apartment of Ruth Steiner (Barbara Bradshaw) for a tutoring session. “You’re not who I thought you were,” says Steiner, appraising the jangling bag of nerves she has undertaken to instruct. From Morrison’s short stories, Steiner had imagined a more serious girl.

But Morrison is very serious, if not refined. She gushes like a fan girl. She begs for an assistant’s position and gets it, more because Steiner can’t stand the sight of groveling than because she thinks Morrison will be any good. Steiner is steely, and life as a critic’s darling (and, perhaps, as an old maid) has made her difficult, a diva of the academe. But she has a wide if well-concealed streak of kindness running through her core. A streak of neediness as well, for life as a diva is lonesome. And although she hides it, I think Steiner rather likes the praise heaped upon her by her soon-to-be acolyte and possibly even takes it as her due. After years of toil in a solitary, niche art, it’s nice to be treated like a celebrity.

The women become friends, and their friendship is rendered in deep, compact scenes that convey the women’s growing equality, as well as their growing nakedness. Steiner, who seemed so secure in her literary prowess and comfortable in her skin, seems ever less so; Morrison, who seemed so completely in Steiner’s thrall, looms ever larger; her ambitions peek out from behind her deference and proceed to dominate both women’s lives.

Dean, as Morrison, does a fine job, even if she is still ridding herself of the hamminess instilled by her musical theater training. Bradshaw, as Steiner, is a revelation. It's hard to know what parts of her portrayal emerge from her own deep reservoirs of talent or from those of director Margaret M. Ledford – who specializes in character studies – but it's perfect. Spend an hour imagining what a woman such as Steiner would be like, face to face -- a woman with an identity built on acclaim, a woman lacking for company, a woman mourning the passage of irretrievable time, whatever else you might come up with -- and there it is in Bradshaw’s voice and all over her face, as lived-in as skin, as familiar as a scar. Bradshaw has walked away with a fair number of shows in recent years, thanks to devastating comic timing (and, in the case of The Chairs, sheer, absurd gumption). But here she gives us a fully formed person, many-textured, containing all the infinite complexities of experience. She is, in other words, the most exciting thing to set foot to floorboards on a Floridian stage this year, and if you miss her, I’ll never forgive myself.

 
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