Review: Word for Word’s “Strangers We Know”

(opened Jan. 12, 2007)

three stars More Moore

For 13 years now, Word for Word has offered a different sort of book club.

The members — let’s call them “the audience” — all read the same works of fiction, just like in any other book club. But in the case of Word for Word, the process of reading is a little different.

You buy a ticket, head into a theater and, rather than being confined to a page, the words live and breathe on stage. You might say you’re being read to by actors, but a Word for Word show is much more than that. In translating short stories (or chapters of novels) for the stage without changing a word of the original text, the Word for Word wizards also manage to create fully formed, beautifully staged pieces of theater.

The latest Word for Word show, Strangers We Know, which opened Saturday at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, offers two short stories that originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1993: Mavis Gallant’s “Mlle. Dias de Corta” and Lorrie Moore’s “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People.”

Sharp and elegant in their writing, the stories are wildly different and demonstrate the dangers and pleasures of stage vs. page.

Gallant’s 40-minute opener (right) is a first-person tale addressed to the absent title character.
Susan Harloe (a Word for Word co-founder) plays a Parisian widow recalling a brief period years ago in which she took in a boarder, a struggling young actress named Alda Dias de Corta (Maria Candelaria).

Gallant’s story, though full of pithy observation (“Some people think the man she lives with is her son. If so, she had him at the age of 12.”), is highly undramatic and spends too much time detailing a bad TV movie starring the young actress. Director Amy Kossow employs the usual Word for Word cleverness in the staging as the ensemble plays everything from yapping neighbor dogs to shelves holding luggage.

But there’s no arc. The central character _ unattractively costumed and wigged by Ambra Sultzbaugh _ never comes across as more than a lonely French snob to whom vowels and rolled r’s are of the utmost importance. There’s little development and no real plot.

The exact opposite is true of Moore’s wonderful “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” (below) the story of a middle-age daughter, Abby (Sheila Balter) and her mother, Mrs. Mallon (Patricia Silver) as they take a driving vacation through Ireland.

Moore’s abundant humor and sardonic tone are captured perfectly in Balter’s nuanced performance, but Silver (a Word for Word regular) is a revelation as the domineering mother who’s not quite as wise or as fearless as she pretends to be.
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“Once you’re with a man,” the mother instructs, “you have to sit with him. As scary as it seems. You have to be brave and learn to reap the benefits of inertia.”

Moore’s incisive story takes us through thorny mother-daughter issues, marriage troubles and that particularly fascinating rite of passage when parents cease being parents and become flawed _ though lovable _ human beings.

The story culminates in the kissing of the Blarney Stone, which is much more difficult than you might imagine. Apparently you have to lie on your back while holding two iron bars and scoot under the stone in such a way that you’re practically hanging off the wall.

Well staged by director Joel Mullenix (who also plays a hilariously fey poet earlier in the piece), “Which Is More Than I Can Say” is Word for Word at its best: a great story made even greater by a robust yet sensitive adaptation to the stage that makes you wonder if, however secretly or unconsciously, the author really intended it for Word for Word’s theatrical book club all along.

Strangers We Know continues through Jan. 28 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Visit for information. Note: Show moves to the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley Jan. 31-Feb. 4

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