Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?

Word for Word's 25th anniversary celebration at Z Space honors the work of Tobias Wolff and George Saunders.

Adolescents are changelings. If their bodies aren’t itchy with desire or suffering from the fires of unrequited love, their imaginations are running wild through lava fields, tar pits and English moors. Melodramatic emotions aren’t felt as such. They’re just emotions, despite the newness of them, and they never fail to pierce the heart. Adolescence remembered, as seen through two particular filters, binds the staged short stories together in Word for Word’s 25th Anniversary! production, helpfully called Anniversary! Stories by Tobias Wolff and George Saunders.

Tobias Wolff and George Saunders’ literary techniques, or filters, are vastly different but their stories both portray fifteen year olds with great care and tenderness. First published as “Kiss” (then later as “Deep Kiss”) in a 1999 issue of The New Yorker, Wolff’s story begins with a description of a lovestruck kid: “When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego.”  

There’s a black and white photograph of a woman in profile that was published with the story. Her face is turned away from the camera to the valley below her. Clouds or a heavy mist covers a mountain landscape. The story and its reenactment on stage capture the feeling that photograph evokes, of recalling the memory of a young love lost that becomes, over time, a half-remembered face long since turned away from you. As Joe Reed’s (Adam Elder) passionate teenage crush Mary Claude Moore, Blythe de Oliveira Foster’s eyes are mysterious and alluring. Mary Claude dies on the first page of the story, and Foster plays her perfectly as a real girl with flickering emotions and as the idealized version of the girl Joe wistfully calls to mind.

Molly Benson, Isabel Langen:  “Victory Lap” (Hillary Goidell)

The rhythm of the language in Deep Kiss is incantatory. As we learn about Joe’s mother and father, the small town they live in and the erotic entanglements of his adult life, the story moves effortlessly between the past and the present. Joe may be in his 50s or 60s when he’s thinking of Mary Claude but those initial experience of the deep kisses shared between them marked him for life. Saunders’ protagonists — Alison Pope (Isabel Langen) and Kyle Boot (Alexander Pannullo) — never kiss but what they experience together will also stay with them as they grow into adults.

Published only ten years after “Kiss” in 2009, Saunders’ “Victory Lap” reveals a changed world. The author expresses our inner thoughts in a new mode of writing that relies much less on description. Characters unleash their fractured, incomplete thoughts and fantasies. Saunders is intent on destroying the notion of a compartmentalized brain. Alison studies ballet. When she steps into the spotlight in her opening scene, she’s at home in her imagination. The story begins, “Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.” In her mind, as she’s walking down the ordinary staircase in her suburban home, she’s making an entrance onto the world stage.

She pirouettes around her living room elated with her good fortune and happiness. Alison is an optimist who, considering her parents, friends and teachers, believes that, “People were amazing.” Saunders, at once, works hard to disabuse her of this notion and to prove it. Unlike Joe Reed, Alison’s adult self won’t be preoccupied with her first kiss. She’ll be contending with a trauma brought about by a stranger. Her neighbor Kyle will play a crucial role on the day a not so amazing man knocks on her door. While neither sets of parents are there to help, the two kids, and before they’re ready, must pass the test that will carry them out of innocence. If they fail, Alison may not recover.

Danger for Wolff’s characters manifests itself in the form of internal neuroses: buried nostalgia, regret and feverish desire. For Saunders, danger is an external force that can only be defeated on its own brutal terms. What Anniversary! accomplishes with this production is to make both of those adolescent realities moving and true.

Anniversary! Stories by Tobias Wolff and George Saunders, through Sept. 2, at Z Space, 450 Florida St. $20-$50; 415-626-0453 or zspace.org/wfwanniversary

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