Vita & Virginia
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 3, 2008
Few memorable theatrical experiences involve the anti-spectacle of two people reading letters aloud from podiums and occasionally sipping water. But exceptional talent on all levels makes this revival of Eileen Atkins's Vita & Virginia, produced by the accurately-if-unfortunately-named No Frills Company and now playing Monday nights at the Zipper Factory, a captivating evening of theatre.
I did not see the original 1994 off-Broadway production starring Atkins as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Redgrave as Vita Sackville-West, but I suspect the basic staging was similar. Director Pamela Berlin, however, has transcended these limitations by casting two extraordinary actresses and matching the trajectory of their performances with that of Atkins's play, a deft arrangement of the correspondence between Woolf and Sackville-West. In this production, Kathleen Chalfant portrays the socially-reticent and psychologically-shaken literary giant, and Patricia Elliott the also accomplished though less lauded lady of letters and social dragonfly.
There is not nearly enough room here for me to adequately describe the masterful way these writers could wield words, but I will say that Vita & Virginia (certainly in its current incarnation) does not come across as epistolary. The connection between Chalfant's Woolf and Elliott's Sackville-West feels nearly psychic—two women, sensing and hearing one another's innermost thoughts, letters being their shared air. And this intimate conversation of sorts never fails to include the audience. Nor do their eccentric and eloquent observations spare us from thinking of our modern lives with grins of recognition and gasps of horror.
During the first act, we watch the two maneuver in their cocoon of rapture, learning of one another, thrilling to the changes galvanized by each other's influence. But what makes this play truly remarkable is the second act, when—out of betrayal, distraction, circumstance—the lovers turn their gaze away from the narcissistic pond of one another and begin to look out into the world. The latter half of the letters—involving the loss of Virginia's nephew in the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe's blitz of London, the paralytic despair of two sophisticated and compassionate women seeing their lives wrecked by brute politics over which they have no say—have a eerie prescience, as though they somehow knew that their pre-World-War-II-England was one country and mere decades away from our current America: ruled by the business interests of wealthy white heterosexual male executives who see not people, but specialized skills and salary requirements, and whose sole measure of tragedy is not the number of innocent lives lost in the preemptive bludgeoning they call a war, but in the fluctuations of the Nasdaq, the Stock Exchange, and other economic thermometers shoved into the rectum of our ailing country.
With Vita & Virginia, Chalfant and Elliott (selected and guided by Atkins and Berlin, respectively) are giving breath to the intelligent, enlightened, and exasperated words of two of literature's most fascinating individuals, making their lives as women and world citizens. But when you go see it, and you should, do not be surprised if you, whilst enjoying the private thoughts of others, ultimately find yourself under scrutiny.