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The Arts
01.07.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Clayton Lord
LOOKING FOR SANITY: Jeri Lynn Cohen, Anthony Nemirovsky and Paul Finocchairo bring Tobias Wolff's stories to life.

Speaking Wolff

Word for Word performs Tobias Wolff stories word for word

By Richard von Busack


THE CONCRETE, Wash., Chamber of Commerce website bids us welcome: "A beautiful, storied Washington town with a rich industrial history." The "storied" part may be a tip-off to constant readers, since it was the setting of the memoir that set a legion of American writers to ransacking their childhoods. Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life concerns the youth of a battered boy in the kind of town that decides to name itself after concrete. Since he left the Northwest, Wolff was a soldier in Vietnam (1994's In Pharaoh's Army was his memoir of that time), a Yank at Oxford and an influential writing teacher at both Syracuse and Stanford. More than all of this, he is a renowned short story writer. He excels in a form that, as he said in an interview with Salon's Joan Smith, is a natural for a society as time-stressed as America.

Wolff's latest work is the greatest-hits collection Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories featuring 10 new pieces and 21 older favorites. One of the most often read (and taught) Wolff stories included here is an allegorical rebuke to the critic, "Bullet in the Brain." A jaded book reviewer skates on thin ice when he decides to correct a gunman's dumb crime-movie dialogue. It's a curious tale, one of great use to the budding writer who is worried about what to leave out and what to keep in. It warns against lordly literary superiority and the foolish insistence that the cliché cannot express something profound. Even Dickens used "dead as a doornail."

Wolff's precise prose lends itself especially well for stage adaptation by the Word for Word Performing Arts Company, which makes a niche for itself by dramatizing famous short stories word for word, with no elisions or shortcuts. For its Stanford Lively Arts appearance, the company, under the direction of Joel Mullennix, will present a trio of Wolff tales: "Firelight," "Down to Bone" and "Sanity."


THE WORD FOR WORD PERFORMING ARTS COMPANY presents MORE STORIES BY TOBIAS WOLFF on Saturday (Jan. 10) at 8pm at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University. Tickets are $17–$34. (650.725.ARTS)


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