Arts Listings

Wolff Stories on Stage at Julia Morgan

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 06:08:00 PM

Word For Word, the San Francisco theater company that stages verbatim versions of classic and contemporary fiction, is producing More Stories By Tobias Wolff at the Julia Morgan Center through Sunday afternoon. Directed by Joel Mullennix and featuring three tales from Our Story Begins (2008), Wolff’s most recent collection, More Stories has just completed an extended San Francisco run and regional tour. It follows Word For Word’s successful 2002 production, Stories By Tobias Wolff. 

The cast features Word For Word charter members Stephanie Hunt and Jen Lynn Cohen, as well as Paul Finocchiaro, Michelle Pava Mills and Anthony Nemirovsky. 

Director Mullinnex talked about the three stories and the manner in which the company stages them: “‘Sanity’ and ‘Down to the Bone’ [first published in the New Yorker] form the first act, with ‘Firelight’ [anthologized in Best American Short Strories] following intermission. There’s a thread of family, specifically of mothers, between the stories, but from different perspectives.” 

Mullennix described the stories: “‘Sanity’ takes place on a walk a teenaged girl takes with her stepmother after they visit the girl’s father in a mental hospital. It’s funny, but poignant, showing the separate needs of each. In ‘Down to the Bone,’ a grown man, whose mother lies dying, goes off to a funeral home—and has a fantasy about a woman. It’s the Sex and Death story. It’s about the role reversal the man goes through with his mother, taking care of her. And she’s too sick to respond to the connection he tries to make with her. In ‘Firelight,’ a boy and his mother, who live in a rooming house, pretend to be interested in renting apartments they can’t really afford so they can visit them. They pretend to shop, to get some satisfaction from a taste of what they can’t have.  

“Tobias Wolff was very close to his own mother,” Mullennix continued, “which informs all three stories. And his stories are often about creating your own identity.” 

He talked about the staging of the stories: “Each piece is very different; they’re all different theatrically. Our method of staging is opposite to what you might think; we’re not narrating a story or doing readers’ theater. We’re really physicalizing the story, figuring out what picture to show to the audience, and to activate the language, to find what in words the audience will see in its imagination.  

“There’s a progression in what the stories look like onstage,” he continued, “the first, a bleak landscape; the second fills in more onstage—and the third, more rich and textured. They grow warmer. Choreographer Andrea Webber has been very helpful. There are certain elements of formalized movement, of dance ... .” 

“The stories are very amusing as well as heartfelt,” Mullennix concluded, “both feelings going on at the same time.” 

Tobias Wolff grew up in the Pacific Northwest (recalled in his memoir,This Boy’s Life), later serving an Army tour of Vietnam (whence his second memoir, In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War). Later a Wallace Stegner Fellow, then teacher at Stanford, he directed the Creative Writing Program there, and is Woods Professor in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. He has published four collections of short stories, a novella and the novel Old School. 

Word For Word was founded in 1993 by Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, and became a program of San Francisco’s Z Space in 1994, staging fiction by over 80 authors. Since 1996, the company has toured France each spring. 



More Stories By Tobias Wolff 

8 p.m. Thursday, March 19, through Saturday, March 21; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 22. Julia Morgan Center, 2540 College Ave. $20-25. (800) 838-3006.