Do you love stories? I do. Passionately. In less than an hour a simple short story can transport me to the moon and back home again. When our lives become turbulent, the short story structure reminds me that after great conflict, tranquility returns. The other night I was fortunate to catch Word For Word's show Strangers We Know at the Fort Mason Center's Magic Theater.
Word For Word performs short stories by some of the most outstanding writers in print. If there were an Olympic Dream Team of short fiction, Word For Word's favorite authors would surely be on the team. Tobias Wolff. Amy Hempel. Richard Ford. Sandra Cisneros. Grace Paley. Sherwood Anderson. These names make me want to fall to my knees.
Strangers We Know is Word For Word's most current rendition of two stories: Mavis Gallant's "Mlle. Dias de Corta" and Lorrie Moore's "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People." In Mavis Gallant's story, a middle-aged widow writes a long letter to Alda Dias de Corta, a confused young actress who once boarded in the narrator's Parisian home. The widow, a smug middle-aged woman wearing an unfortunate wig, can't excise the memory of her former tenant, and her thinly-disguised pity for Alda is, we discover, really driven by emptiness and envy. This story is a quiet revelation about the true nature of a character. The second half of the show features Lorrie Moore's absolutely hilarious story about the strained relationship between an American mother and daughter traveling through Ireland. Moore's story culminates when the two characters hike up a winding trail to kiss the Blarney Stone. This is a physically and mentally challenging feat since in order to plant the kiss, each must lie on her back and stretch over a chasm. In doing so the mother, who by a long shot seems to be the stronger of the two characters, reveals her fears and frailties, and in the end we witness a lovely example of bravery and bonding.
We've all been double-crossed by filmmakers who've sold out our favorite novels and stories, and afterwards left the theater feeling a bit soiled. But believe me, after seeing Strangers We Know you'll feel squeaky clean because the company doesn't alter a word of the original masterpiece, which is appropriate, as Word For Word performs stories in which every single word counts.
This strict dedication to an author's original piece presents a major challenge; a typical short story comprises not only dialogue and scene, but exposition -- passages where a character's thoughts wander into memory and description and reaction. Word For Word lives up to this challenge by creatively enacting a character's situation and psychological state. So even though Mavis Gallant's story is written in letter narration from a point of view limited to one character, at certain moments the main character puts words in other peoples' mouths -- and those characters appear onstage to deliver those statements.
And then there's the challenge of enacting a character's every whim, thought, and action. The short story doesn't take into account the limits of the stage. Word For Word meets these challenges with a vast array of creative staging, blocking, and use of props. A table is not only a table: it's also a bench, a soapbox, and when overturned, a tray. Sometimes, too, props take on a new layer of meaning -- when actors use suitcases not only as luggage but also as seats in their vehicles, we're being invited to think about the nuances of the words such as "transitory" and "baggage."
These two words certainly touch on the themes of both Gallant's and Moore's story, but the true highlight of the night was Lorrie Moore's piece, which contained sentences like this one: "They stopped briefly in an English manor house, to see the natural world cut up into moldings and rugs, wool and wood captive and squared, the earth stolen and embalmed and shellacked." And one actor in particular, Patricia Silver (who played the domineering mother), nearly stole the show because in her role she was tough as steel and as brittle as balsa, recognizable yet unique, endearingly bossy to the very end.
After the show ended and Silver and company took their bows, I picked my way through the muggy night to my car. As I walked past a grove of fresh-smelling cypress, I had a thought: Strangers We Know is an ideal marriage of literature and theater, as one form respects the other. In this model, the emergent form is as strong as its parents. And since I believe that the viewer is integral to art, I'd venture this: art that fortifies art also fortifies the viewer. Fortified, then, and alone in the dark, I felt tranquil, at last, despite all the turbulence I've experienced at home recently, a long story -- let's not get into it. Tranquility is the home we carry inside of us, and the performance had delivered me safely home.
Strangers We Know runs January 31 through February 4, 2007 at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berekely. Lorrie Moore will join the group on March 13th, 2007 to discuss the production at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco. Get Tickets and Information (at zspace.org)