In 'Collected,' student and teacher connect and contend

Accomplished writer Ruth Steiner is initially flattered by the attention she gets from her eager graduate student Lisa Morrison.

Lisa hangs on her every word and writes down every piece of advice she can give as if it were gospel truth. But before long, Ruth wishes Lisa hadn't listened quite so well.

The disintegration of this teacher-student relationship makes for compelling theater in Donald Margulies' 1996 drama "Collected Stories," now being staged by Prospect Theater Project in Modesto.

As performed by the marvelous Karen Olson (Ruth) and Kathleen Ennis (Lisa) under the guidance of director Jack Souza, it's one of the best productions in the region this year. There is no acting at all in this staging, just real women alternately confiding in, comforting and combating each other.

Margulies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner With Friends" and wrote the excellent "Shipwrecked," staged in April by Sierra Repertory Theatre. He cleverly constructs "Collected Stories" so that there isn't any clear villain or victim. When one major incident finally ends their relationship, it's hard to feel much sympathy for either woman since both contributed to the result. He balances the serious subject matter with lots of humor, making it easier to digest.

Single and devoted only to her work, Olson's Ruth comes off as brittle and cold in the beginning of the play. But she lightens up as the play goes on and begins to share her feelings with Lisa. We start to see that Ruth's harsh exterior is a defense mechanism to protect her sensitive heart.

It's just the reverse with Ennis' Lisa. She appears insecure and nervous at first around her role model, but with time, it's revealed that she has a strong inner core that has abundant confidence and driving ambition.

The play makes you think about how literature is created, where writers get their source material and what makes a good story.

It entertainingly investigates the age-old debate over whether you can like the art if you don't like the artist. A highlight of the play is the women's argument over the morality of Woody Allen's romance with former girlfriend Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. As a side note, it's funny to look back at that scandal and consider that the once illicit couple are married and have been together almost 20 years.

Souza's lovely set of Steiner's book-filled apartment perfectly fits the kind of living space you imagine Steiner would have. The women wear a wardrobe that would easily fit in with their characters' sophisticated New York lifestyle.

If you want to attend this show, don't wait long to get tickets. Once the word gets out about how stellar it is, it's bound to sell out fast.

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