There simply couldn't be a more perfect pairing than Nobel Prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro and Word for Word, San Francisco's venerable theater troupe that uses its source material as exactly written in its original text.
Director Joel Mullennix and an impeccably fine-tuned ensemble present two pointed and poignant Munro short stories – “The Office” and “Dolly” – in Word for Word's enlightening and satisfying production onstage at Z Below through April 12.
Jeri Lynn Cohen, sharp and endearing, portrays the opinionated, independence-seeking woman in “The Office,” a story from early in Munro's career that plays on Virginia Woolf's “A Room of One's Own.”
The funny, smart would-be fiction writer (who admittedly feels presumptuous calling herself one), rents an office space in an attempt to practice her craft away from her all-consuming house – only to be distracted and disturbed by the owner Mr. Malley, who brings her unwanted gifts: a huge plant, an ugly expensive teapot, a wastebasket and cushion for her chair, and an unwanted relationship.
Paul Finocchiaro brings a believable creepiness to Malley, while the ensemble adds the wonderful, often whimsical Word for Word touch, by, for example, acting out descriptions of household knickknacks and paintings of dogs.
The show's second half is “Dolly,” a humorous and deep story from 83-year-old Munro's most recent collection about a mature, content couple who are unexpectedly derailed by a strange visitor.
Sheila Balter is a delight as the Woman, who, like the main character in “The Office,” is thoughtful and introspective. She writes biographies about underappreciated Canadian writers and her lanky older husband Frank (an appealing, laid-back Howard Swain), who wrote poetry back in the day, still rides his horse.
When the woman uncharacteristically answers her door and invites in the friendly, ruddy makeup saleswoman, Gwen (Susan Harloe), who, it turns out, has a past with Frank, the couple's world turns upside down – in ways that are hilarious, moving and profound.
Although written more than 40 years apart, “The Office” and “Dolly” both exemplify Munro's genius in exploring and exposing the contrasting inner and outer lives of everyday people. The skillful, dedicated artists in Word for Word _ which first took on Munro in 1991 with the story “Friend of My Youth” – bring them all to another equally powerful level.
Stories by Alice Munro
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 450 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 12
Tickets: $35 to $55
Contact: (866) 811- 4111, www.zspace.org