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The Resident Ensemble Players (REP) at the University of Delaware opens its 15th season on a dive into the 1920s with Vita & Virginia by Eileen Atkins. The play explores an era when people corresponded fluently and often on paper, and the work mines the intense, erudite letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West to chronicle their love affair and lasting friendship.
Sackville-West was an adventurous globe-trotting aristocrat and prolific novelist, poet, and garden designer (horticulturists know her for the White Garden at Sissinghurst) who met the somewhat reclusive and often homebound literary icon Woolf in 1922. Woolf and her husband, author and publisher Leonard, were part of the Bloomsbury Group, a loose artistic collective of friends and relatives (known for their often-louche lifestyles) who figured prominently in early 20th-century London and Cambridge. Sackville-West and her husband, diplomat Harold Nicholson, were close to members of the group, though not actually part of it.
The women connected at a party in 1922, and they soon formed and carried on an intense intellectual (and intermittently sexual) relationship, one that inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando. Their affair lasted until 1935, spanning the artistic peak of both women’s careers, and the two remained friends until Woolf’s suicide in 1941.
Visual and intellectual divides
This production, thoughtfully directed by Sandy Ernst, features two versatile and accomplished REP actors: Elizabeth Heflin as Woolf and Kathleen Pirkl Tague as Sackville-West. The duo enters onto Stefanie Hansen’s Art-Deco-inspired set, its elegant satin draperies extending skyward. At the center are two period bentwood chairs, utilized at the infrequent times when the women were physically together; for much of their relationship, they were apart. Each actor’s playing area helps define character. Woolf’s “room of her own” feels remote and monk-like: a plain, four-square writing table atop a flat-weave rug, with a no-nonsense chair and piles of books. It’s a striking contrast with Sackville-West’s section of the stage, featuring an ornate French-style table with flowers and bibelots on an oriental rug, furnishings that seem part of a larger, busier space.
This visual contrast is obvious, and there is also an intellectual contrast built into the script. Now the more revered author, Woolf (seated diligently at her table) was enormously self-critical and labored mightily over her often-minimal output of elegant, dense, stream-of-consciousness prose. Sackville-West, on the other hand, never seems to settle anywhere, let alone in a writer’s chair. Constantly in motion and traveling all over the world, she was actually far more prolific and lionized in her time, tossing off 35 books of prose and poetry (eight of them before the age of 18) and writing a weekly column for London’s Observer for 15 years.
Pirkl Tague and Heflin dig deeply into these highly different women, though sometimes (as scripted) they border on stereotypes. Quoting from their voluble letters, the show chronicles the writers’ passionate intellectual and sexual connection, though both stayed with their respective husbands lifelong. Sackville-West had relationships with many other women, something that gave Woolf considerable pain, and though this is amply described, the facile flow of words often varnishes those deeper emotions. I saw the show in its sole preview, and as it settles into its theatrical rhythm, the actors’ quick verbal pace may adjust, allowing the audience to more clearly feel the deep connection that bounds these women—seemingly so different—to one another for more than a decade.
An epistolary work
Atkins, a Dame of the British Empire, peoples the work with a torrent of names likely familiar to British theatergoers, but American audiences could perhaps use a “who’s-who” glossary in the printed program. This love story was most recently retold in a 2018 film, but Atkins originally wrote her two-hander in 1992, claiming the role of Woolf for herself opposite Penelope Wilton in England (1993) and Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway (1994). Though a noted actor, Atkins herself is also an accomplished writer, the creator of two lauded British TV series (Upstairs Downstairs and The House of Elliot), as well as a film script of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Vita & Virginia is an epistolary work, and director Ernst skillfully inserts as much action as possible into a script that is sedentary by nature. The play’s dramatic movement is almost wholly emotional and intellectual, but there is some taut physicality when the women leave their designated playing spaces and meet (at first tentatively and then passionately) at those two center-stage chairs.
Life’s sharp corners
The show has the excellent production values for which REP is known. Hansen’s set is elegantly lit by Bobby Harrell, who subtly darkens the stage as the mood slouches toward war; Jo Fulmer’s costumes (one for each woman) clearly define character, with riding boots and outdoor gear for Sackville-West and sensible brogues and a well-worn dress for Woolf; and Ryan P. McGinty’s sound design, opening with jaunty, slightly melancholic jazz-age music, subtly morphs into the sounds of war.
The play concludes abruptly when Woolf (who struggled lifelong with depression) dies by suicide, the playwright’s reminder of how sharply love and life can be cut off. Vita & Virginia explores a time when intellectual prowess was revered, and words were sensuous, opening up the life and work of these two writers, one of whom we think we know and the other whom we may not have known at all.
What, When, Where
Vita & Virginia. By Eileen Atkins, directed by Sandy Ernst. $15-$20. Through October 1, 2023, at Roselle Center for the Arts's Thompson Theatre at the University of Delaware, 110 Orchard Road, Newark. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
Thompson Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue and equipped with a hearing loop system that works with hearing aid t-coils, cochlear implants, and in-house hearing devices. For wheelchair and seating requests, call (302) 831-2204 or email [email protected].
Masks are not required.
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