note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Beverly Creasey
by Beverley Creasey
Eileen Atkins' extraordinaryily tender and funny play "Vita & Virginia" is having its Boston premiere at the Boston Center for The Arts just in time for Valentine's Day. And what better month to present one of literature's most passionate love stories.
As it happens, many books and not a few plays have been written about the two novelists, singly and together: about Woolf as the revolutionary Bloomsbury writer and publisher (of fellow novelists like E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, and the first English translation of Freud!) and about Sackville-West as the fiery poet/novelist and prolific free spirit.
Playwright Atkins (who has performed an acclaimed one-woman show as Virginia Woolf) has taken correspondence between the two as a starting point and fashioned a sparkling "dialog" which sometimes takes place via letters, sometimes in person and sometimes as soliloquy. It is astonishing to witness the dramatic spark which is ignited by eliminating the time factor between posting and answering letters, as well as between actual events.
At certain moments the two sit apart from each other, the reserved Virginia at her plain writing table and the wildly romantic Vita elegantly slouched in her ornate Elizabethan chair. At other, highly charged moments, the two are together entwined in sweet embrace, curled lovingly about each other like ivy.
The two are a study in contrasts: an economical Virginia never wasting a word in her modest rooms and an extravagant Vita "frittering" her days at Knole, her 16th century ancestral castle. What unites the two is their love of language, and Atkins has assembled some of the most seductive words (from their collective works) ever put on paper. Woolf is at one point in the play so furious with Vita for her dallaiance with another woman that she creates the magnificent "Orlando" about a lover down through the ages who is both male and female...as revenge on, and tribute to, her beloved Vita. If you've seen last year's wonderful film of "Orlando" you're ahead of the game.
It does help, in fact, if you know something about these "real life" characters before seeing the play. Lots of familiar names are dropped as delicious gossip --- for example, about the wickedly critical Edith Sitwell (whose stark black & white portrait by photograspher Cecil Beaton you may have seen). You'll hear references to fellow novelists like Galsworthy ("The Forsyte Saga"), Forster ("Howard's End" and "A Room with A View" --- not to be confused with Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own"), the critic Rebecca West, the Victorian biographer Lytton Strachey, the ecentric poets Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell (who with her brothers terrorized London poets), T.S. Eliot, and Virginia's brother-in-law the art critic Clive Bell.
The Bloomsbury group, named for a London neighborhood of writers and artists, included Virginia and her husband Leonard, Virginia's novelist sister Vanessa Bell and Clive, Strachey, painter Roger Fry and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Virginia, in a play, speaks frequently of Mrs. Dalloway's scandalous behavior. "Mrs. Dalloway" is her introspective novel, about suicide and a woman who feels her life is emotionally bankrupt.
In timelines, it may be of help to know that Woolf was an exact contemporary of James Joyce, writing, as Joyce also did, in "stream of consciousness". In America, the Algonquin "Round Table" was in full gallop, and Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott holding forth. (Some of the English writers, like Edith Sitwell, intermingled with their American cousins.) Sackville-West was herself heralded in the states for her poetry. Her unconventional marriage, and her relationship with Woolf, is chronicled by her son in his 1973 memoir, "Portrait of A Marriage".
The Threshold Theatre's production, deftly directed by Kate Caffrey, moves so gracefully from scene to scene that you have the feeling of being wrapped in the luxurious rhythms of poetry. (In the play, Virginia invents the perfect definition of great writing: "Once you have the rhythm you can't use the wrong word.")
Mary Kearney gives a heartbreaking performance as the fragile, tormented and slightly pious literary lioness; Lizza Riley is majestic as the dashing, devil-may-care aristocrat who wins Virginia over with her "literary abuse". Kearney's portrayal is imbued with a depth of sadness which surfaces even when her gaze is filled with the vivacious Sackville-West. Riley too, with her large, liquid eyes, manages a melancholy interior which is almost masked by her brashness and vitality.
Sarah Pruitt's costumes (Godawful orange hose, frumpy
skirt and loose jacket for Virginia, crisp riding togs for Vita)
mirror the women's personalities perfectly. The tiny Leland Center
stage (warmly lit by Steven Hocurscak and Greg Jutkiewicz) is just
the right setting for this intimate, loving, and extremely witty
portrait of two remarkable women whose works and memory should be
revived as often as possible.