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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 84.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Forward Theater's Collected Stories is a smart, topical look at the complicated relationship between two writers
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Day (left) and Frye (right) explore thorny questions with sharp, believable dialogue.
Credit:Mark Frohna

One of the things I admire about Collected Stories, the latest production by Forward Theater Company, is that even though it has only two characters and takes place almost completely in one apartment, it never feels sparse or claustrophobic. On the contrary, it brims with thorny questions and sharp, believable dialogue. The production runs through Feb. 3 at Overture Center's Playhouse.

Through the shifting dynamic between a young writer and older mentor over the course of six years, Donald Margulies' smart play examines friendship, integrity and personal and professional boundaries. It leaves audiences in the satisfying position of reaching their own conclusions about who -- if anyone -- has been wronged.

The show, which opened last Thursday, is a co-production between Forward and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre that concluded its Milwaukee run in December. I caught Saturday night's performance.

When Lisa Morrison, an eager grad student, and Ruth Steiner first meet in Ruth's cozy, book- and memento-filled apartment in Greenwich Village, Lisa is fidgety and starstruck. Arriving for a tutorial in short-story writing, Lisa admires Ruth's work so much that she can quote chapter and verse. Reclusive Ruth isn't quite ready for full-bore adoration. She's prickly and sarcastic at first. But when Lisa takes a job as Ruth's assistant, their lives become closely intertwined both personally and professionally.

By the end of the first act, Lisa has become more mature and able to spar and disagree with Ruth about any number of things. A discussion of current celebrity gossip leads to a revelation about Ruth's past -- something that will shake their friendship to the core when Lisa publishes a fictionalized account several years later.

As Ruth and Lisa, respectively, Sarah Day and Laura Frye are well paired. Day easily inhabits Ruth's no-nonsense intelligence -- and her rage. Frye handles the more overt transformations of her character deftly, from sycophantic student to literary up-and-comer. As directed by C. Michael Wright, the exchanges between these two smart women are always absorbing; the play feels brisk and idea-driven, not talky. Stephen Hudson-Mairet's set is a handsome, lived-in space that is just right for Ruth's character; throughout the play, there are always new details to notice.

Collected Stories seems to continue a mini-trend in the selection of Forward Theater plays: smart, topical work that probes ethical questions. I'm thinking of 2011's Going to St. Ives, which similarly paired two women (an English doctor and an African dictator's mother), and last winter's A Thousand Words, which also starred Sarah Day and touched upon friendship and artistic conflict.

"Some things you don't touch," says Ruth of her past; not everything is fodder for her stories. Whether the differences between Ruth and Lisa are personal or generational, they are fascinating nonetheless, and the trajectory of their relationship makes for compelling theater -- and a lively debate with your friends after the show.

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