Fans of the writer Tobias Wolff sometimes call him the American Chekov. He's known for stories that are simple and primal, and for characters who reveal themselves in small ways. He's also known for a particularly incandescent form of language. Take his story "Sanity," which takes place on a country road near Alta Vista State Hospital, where cars roll up the asphalt "with the sound of tape being peeled." That description gives a precise, visceral image of what's happening in the story. It also tells you something about the main character April, who is trudging up that road to visit her father in the Alta Vista psychiatric ward. It's the work of a writer who can make little details resonate in big ways.
Susan Harloe loves the line-for-line elegance of Wolff's writing. As the artistic director of Word for Word, a San Francisco theater company that stages short fiction in unadulterated form, she's in a perfect position to capture that elegance and bring the words to life when Word for Word performs More Stories by Tobias Wolff this week at Julia Morgan Theater. Harloe's company performs short stories verbatim — both the narrative and the dialogue. So if April is stomping up the road "with a mannish stride," her character will describe the action while doing it.
It's not reader's theater in the traditional sense: There's no narrator in the background intoning all the "he saids" and "she saids" and voicing every line of description between the dialogue. Rather, said Harloe, each line is spoken by the person "from whose heart it comes."
This type of theater accomplishes several things at once, said Harloe. It brings vitality to the words on a page, and allows you to glean the most you can from them. At the same time, it honors the author's voice.
To date, Word for Word has performed stories by more than fifty writers, including Edith Wharton, Langston Hughes, Barbara Kingsolver, James Baldwin, Richard Ford, and John Steinbeck. More Stories by Tobias Wolff, directed by Joel Mullennix, will feature stagings of "Sanity," "Firelight," and "Down to Bone," about a man making funeral arrangements for his mother. The stories are beautiful in an unadorned, common-man sort of way. Wolff's characters are seekers. They live on the margins. They take busses, read People magazine, and window shop for apartments they can't afford. Yet, said Harloe, they share a kind of unassailable spirit that lends itself to great theater.
More Stories by Tobias Wolff runs March 18 through 22 at Julia Morgan Young People's Performing Arts Center (2640 College Ave., Berkeley). $20-$25. JuliaMorgan.org
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