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Dynamic acting duo comes of age in Dignity's 'Collected Stories'

Audiences share in the evolution of a mentor-protege relationship in Dignity Players' production of Donald Margulies' 1997 play, "Collected Stories."

The play depicts the evolving relationship of two friends over a six-year period. What starts with sardonic writer-teacher Ruth Steiner's first encounter with worshipful student Lisa Morrison gradually transitions into more of a mother-daughter relationship. Then we see fledgling writer Lisa apply Ruth's lessons to spark a growing independence and distance before achieving success.

Author of more than two dozen plays, Margulies teaches writing, as does Ruth. Born in 1954, Margulies is fictional Ruth's contemporary and is able to create the experience of an admiring student pursuing her mentor, and absorbing her teacher's private reminiscences.

Margulies presents a shift in balances — from the mentor's control of the protege's publishing future to a reversal, when the student appropriates Ruth's story to create her own.

Bringing Margulies' work to life in Dignity's intimate space, veteran Annapolis director Lois Evans guides the cast of two through a friendship that spans generations and accomplishments. Evans uses ethical arguments and literary intelligence to propel the action forward.

Cast in a role worthy of her talent, versatile veteran actor Carol Cohen inhabits the role of Ruth, imbuing her with an authentic Jewish humor that brightens a very funny opening scene, as she throws her apartment key to young visitor Lisa three floors below.

Disdainful of such conveniences as a buzzer to unlock the front door of her apartment building; and preferring the incessant ringing of a phone instead of installing an answering machine, Ruth enjoys comfortable isolation in her refuge. She conveys a cool detachment toward Lisa.

When Lisa voices befuddlement at the geography of New York City's art center — Greenwich Village —Ruth stakes her claim to the neighborhood, where she's been ensconced for more than 30 years.

After inviting Lisa to become her assistant, prickly Ruth guides the younger woman through the publication of her first collection of short stories. Ruth later enables a role reversal as she asks Lisa's opinion of her recent work. Allowing layers of privacy to thaw before her revelation, Cohen invests this climactic scene with liberating warmth as Ruth gently describes her affair, at age 20, with the poet Delmore Schwartz.

Owning this juicy role, Cohen no doubt inspires co-star Sarah Wade, who delivers a first-rate performance as Lisa, her most demanding dramatic role to date.

Having first admired Wade in Compass Rose's "Oliver," where she displayed considerable dancing and singing talents, and also in Colonial Players' "Communicating Doors" and "Taking Steps" and as "Star-to-Be" in Colonial's recent "Annie," it's personally rewarding to report her triumph in a major dramatic role.

Ambitious Lisa is not as clearly defined, nor as sympathetic as mentor Ruth, who has developed her own custom-tailored armor for survival. Young, ill-at-ease, sycophantic Lisa eagerly learns from Ruth.

Early on, though, Lisa hints at a shrewder self, with a sly smile as she takes in her mentor's useful advice. Told to "get a story to tell and just tell it" and that it doesn't matter what the basis of the story is, "as long as it's a good story," Lisa distances herself from her mentor and independently finds a publisher.

Wade rises to new heights in her scene at an auditorium, where she claims Ruth's story as her own — as she assumes she was instructed to do.

Wade conveys Lisa's natural lack of guilt, an honest reaction of her generation, unencumbered by the morals of those who came before.

Dignity's production of "Collected Stories" is a must-see for admirers of thought-provoking theater, sensitively interpreted by skilled actors.

The show continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 1 at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Annapolis, 333 Dubois Road, Annapolis. Tickets can be purchased at the box office in the theater immediately before each performance; or reserved by calling 410-266-8044, or online at the Dignity Players website,

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