"Collected Stories" cleverly uses silence to deliver emotional wallops. 

Covert Conflict

So much contemporary theater depends on the notion that there should be lots of overt conflict onstage. Characters yell at one another in shrill pitches, hurl props at one another with just the slightest provocation, and engage in fistfights at every possible occasion.

So it's a pleasure to attend a play that is unapologetically quiet and yet still powerful in its own way. In fact, the Barksdale Theatre's production of "Collected Stories" delivers some of its most powerful emotional wallops when neither character is speaking at all. The playwright, David Margulies, won the Pulitzer Prize for "Dinner for Friends," another play that hides emotion in its quieter moments.

Ruth Steiner (Irene Ziegler), a teacher and distinguished short-story writer, has summoned a student, Lisa Morrison (Erin Thomas), to her apartment for a discussion of Lisa's short story. Though Ruth is given to inflexible pronouncements about the sources of creativity and Lisa is irritatingly earnest to the point of unctuousness, we can still detect a spark of chemistry between these two opposites.

In the arc of Thomas' performance, we see Lisa become more self-confident, and also more willing to defy her mentor as she grows as a writer. Upon discovering that Lisa didn't immediately tell her about the publication of a short story, Ruth steams silently on the couch for a tense period that seems to go on forever. Not only is the absence of dialogue effective in its own right, it highlights a small betrayal that ultimately leads to a far more significant betrayal later in the play.

Nancy Cates' direction smartly emphasizes these quiet portions of the script. For the most part, the characters speak in normal conversational tones. Sure, there are some emotional pyrotechnics at the end of the play, but they erupt naturally and then quickly recede back into the quiet.

Ziegler is a master of the squint. She possesses several types in her arsenal, and all are effectively delivered through unruly strands of hair that fall across her face. For disapproval, she shoots a squint directly into Lisa's eyes. A squint into Lisa's back is a flash of passive-aggressive anger. And for hurt, Ziegler fires a squint into the distance. It's not an actor's gadgetry but believable behavior for a cantankerous New York writer.

The entire play takes place in Ruth's Greenwich Village apartment, and Tim McMath's design is colored in warm tones with lots of depth and texture. There are a couple of IKEA touches in the decor that seem out of place, and the leather furniture is probably too clubby for Ruth. But everything is positioned to create lots of interesting angles for the actors to move about.

Even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult to sustain a full-length play with only two characters. And this show is certainly too long at two and a half hours (including intermission). Fortunately, the second act moves faster than the first because it focuses more on Ruth than Lisa. Ruth's story is simply more compelling as we read a lifetime of disappointments and fears in Ziegler's first-rate performance.

"Collected Stories" runs through March 17 at the Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive. Tickets cost $24. Call 282-2620.


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