How obvious is Donald Margulies’ literary play Collected Stories? Begin with the list I started during the first 10 minutes of the show: “Lines that will Inexorably Return to Haunt the Speaker.”

For while literary lioness Ruth Steiner sets the ground rules for tutorials with her disturbingly eager student Lisa, the playwright is just as clearly setting up a row of creative maxims to be knocked over.

These are writing class clichés so worthy of being toppled that most already have been: “I can’t teach you how to write; I don’t pretend to know myself.” “I don’t care what the basis of a story is, provided it’s a good story.” “You can’t censor your creative impulses.” “Writers are like neighbors at a tag sale; we rummage through other people’s lives.”

Though her application of these self-serving saws has already rendered Ruth the brittle, antisocial monarch of a small Greenwich Village apartment, further reparations are in order. Neither Margulies nor we will rest until she sees every belletristic bromide turned on herself.

Collected Stories is preoccupied with the expectations of privacy among artists and what signals a proper “transfer of ownership” when a biographical story has been told.

Artists take a moral stance when deciding never to tell the stories of their lives. That stance changes, though, when they attempt to prevent anyone else from ever telling those stories. J.D. Salinger and Lillian Hellman, among others, have taken famously draconian measures to prevent “unauthorized” biographies from being researched or written.

But Ruth has chosen to tell a private story of her life to her longtime student–a writer, of all people. That twist turns this into a test of ethics instead–Ruth’s ethics, and not her student’s.

By this point, Ruth has already taught Lisa “acceptable” shortcuts to the truth and the poses a younger writer should adopt when a grander lady of letters is living vicariously through her budding career.

But when Ruth’s life stories become the focus of Lisa’s work, it becomes clear that Lisa has never been taught the ethical boundaries of approaching a subject’s life. The sowing clearly meets the reaping in a soapy concluding scene.

On Danielle MacMonagle and painter Jeff Alguire’s homey set, director J. Chachula’s work with Mary Rowland and Whitney Griffin had us contemplating a 4 1/2-star rating for this show at intermission. But after the break, Margulies’ script remained on its course toward the obvious. We never sensed a fundamental change in Ruth and Lisa’s relationship–perhaps because we didn’t sense a fundamental change in Lisa, despite a timespan of six years and the start of a professional career. By their disappointing last scene, the two actors seemed unbalanced on stage.

Collected Stories
* * *
Flying Machine Theatre
Common Ground Theater

When playwrights accept commissions specifying subject matter or intent, we worry. Are they being diverted from their own central themes? Are their voices being co-opted for an agenda not their own?

For the second time, the National Center on Minority Health Disparities commissioned emerging regional playwright (and 2005 Indy Arts Award winner) Howard L. Craft to create a full-length play. In July 2005, his Tunnels probed the roots of addiction. Stealing Clouds, which deals with breast cancer, closed last weekend at N.C. Central University Theater.

The goal of both was to educate audiences about health issues disproportionately affecting African Americans. This aim is clearly sterling.

Yet, didacticism and pedagogy are rarely a playwright’s chosen traveling companions. Lectures die on stage; preaching pushes away the previously unconverted. An audience comes prepared to figure out a play’s real message. They get bored when a playwright spells everything out.

But a government agency wants its message to be clear: Audience members were given questionnaires to assess their understanding of breast cancer after Friday’s performance.

Luckily, Craft and director Karen Dacons-Brock have navigated the tensions here between teaching and theater. They’ve placed complex lives on stage, and not a single-sided patient fighting one thing alone–a disease.

Pamela Ross made Katherine a mom worried about her daughter, her job and her illness. Her friend, Mel (Deneen Tatum), had her own life but was there when needed. Gil Faison charmed and ached as a lover kept at arm’s length, while C. Delton Streeter’s comic relief still plugged into the crisis facing this group.

Even if every line didn’t mention this year’s disease, they reminded us that people face and conquer illness from within a social, spiritual and medical community–and that they do it in the midst of a continuing story.

People are usually most vulnerable when illness isolates them from their community. Stealing Clouds affirms that community’s power in the healing process.

Stealing Clouds
* * * 1/2
NCCU Theatre

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