Savoring Every Word of Alice Munro's Stories Onstage

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Jeri Lynn Cohen yearns for a room of her own in "The Office" by Alice Munro. (Photo: Mark Leialoha)

Since its founding in 1993, Word for Word has occupied a unique niche in the Bay Area theater scene. The company adapts works of prose -- mostly short stories --  to the stage without changing a word. Where other troupes might be tempted to show instead of tell, Word for Word is happy to do both at once.

The virtues of that approach are displayed brilliantly by the troupe’s latest production, Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” and “Dolly.” The actors seamlessly and humorously embody not only major and minor characters and random people in the crowd but also inanimate objects such as paintings on the wall. Munro’s stories include some deliciously detailed and unflattering physical descriptions of some of the characters -- which are all the funnier when the person being talked about is standing right there. Both of these particular stories are written in first person, which makes the narration seem more natural than it might in third person.

Paul Finocchiaro pesters Jeri Lynn Cohen in "The Office" by Alice Munro. (Photo: Mark Leialoha)
Paul Finocchiaro pesters Jeri Lynn Cohen in "The Office."  (Photo: Mark Leialoha)

This isn't Word for Word’s first go-round with the Canadian short story writer; the company performed Munro’s “Friend of My Youth” in 1999. Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 as a “master of the contemporary short story,” and the two works performed in director Joel Mullennix’s superb staging demonstrate why.

In “The Office,” from Munro’s first book of short stories, in 1968,  a fiction writer feels the need to rent an office (an effectively spare, mutable space designed by Jacquelyn Scott). She needs a space of her own because, as she explains to her husband, when a woman is home she’s expected to attend to all the needs of the house. “She is the house; there is no separation possible.”

To Howard Swain as the bewildered husband, none of this really matters. It’s all a momentary distraction from watching television. Sure, he says, she should rent an office if she wants.

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Jeri Lynn Cohen compellingly embodies the many frustrations of a woman who just wants to be left alone to write and is furious at herself for being too polite to insist on it. This becomes more and more of an issue once she actually rents the office, because the landlord (a melancholy and amusingly ingratiating Paul Finocchiaro) is overly friendly to the point of neediness. He keeps coming around with little gifts to brighten up the room, and every attempt to get him to buzz off only increases his need to feel liked. Her intended refuge  starts to feel like an emotional bear trap.

Howard Swain tries to put Sheila Balter's mind at ease in "Dolly" by Alice Munro. (Photo: Mark Leialoha)
Howard Swain tries to put Sheila Balter's mind at ease in "Dolly." (Photo: Mark Leialoha)

“Dolly,” from Muno's most recent story collection, in 2012, starts off with a retired couple cheerfully discussing their own deaths. They’re so untroubled by the prospect that when they find a pleasant country road, they talk about what a nice place it might be to do themselves in.They’re not sick or anything; they just prefer to quit while they’re ahead.

The man, named Franklin (an endearingly jovial Swain), is especially easygoing about it all—and seemingly about everything. He’s a successful poet who now seems content just to live, or not to live as the case may be. Sheila Balter also seems happy in the relationship as the unnamed first person narrator who writes biographies of forgotten Canadian novelists, but she’s also plagued with a nagging introspection by which Franklin seems untroubled. When their solitary home is visited by a traveling cosmetics salesperson (Susan Harloe, blithely chatty), the narrator is at first delighted by the change of pace but soon fretful about the interruption of their routine. Who is this Gwen, and what does she want from them? In Balter’s increasingly fretful view, the subtext of every conversation begins to entirely drown out its text.

Sheila Balter isn't entirely happy with how chummy Howard Swain and Susan Harloe are getting in "Dolly" by Alice Munro. (Photo: Mark Leialoha)
Sheila Balter isn't entirely happy with how chummy Howard Swain and Susan Harloe are getting in "Dolly." (Photo: Mark Leialoha)

A keen observer of human nature, Munro deftly depicts how seemingly small, everyday events can become immense offenses depending on how the person experiencing them sees the world. She illustrates that inner world so fully that in the heat of the moment there seems to be no other way to react.

One marvelous thing about Word for Word’s approach is that they do more than just bring these stories to life. The actors linger lovingly over the language, so strikingly that if you were inspired to read one of the stories after seeing them perform it, you might find that you remembered every word.

Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” and “Dolly” runs through April 12, 2015 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit zspace.org.