Review by Gail M. Burns, September 2004

Imagine that you want to create a beautiful mosaic, but the only way you are allowed to work is to accept one piece each from a thousand different people – people who each have their own vision of what the complete work of art will be. This is how a theatrical production is created. This is why some of them are breathtakingly beautiful and others are totally misshapen. Most of them manage to end up intriguing enough in their complexity to warrant a closer look.

It is one of the great mysteries and joys of the theatre that there are a few special performances when everything goes right. When the mosaic comes together in all of its glory, as dazzling and remarkable as when you first imagined it. When all the players – the actors, the director, the designers, the technicians, the stage manager, the house manager, the box office attendants, the kids who show you where to park, and, of course, the audience – are all on the same wavelength and magic occurs. The matinee of Vita and Virginia on September 26, 2004, was one of those miraculous moments. Catherine Taylor-Williams and Tod Randolph delivered complete and perfect performances. I didn’t ever want it to end.

Now that autumn has arrived and the theatre scene in Berkshire County is a little less frantic, I will allow very few excuses to those who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this truly perfect production.

Vita and Virginia was developed from the correspondence of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf by actress Eileen Atkins in the early 1990’s as a vehicle for herself. In 1994 it opened in London with Atkins as Sackville-West and Vanessa Redgrave as Woolf.

It is appropriate that a play about two superb writers should be created from their own written words. There is a vast difference between expressing oneself in the intimate and intellectual act of writing and in the immediate and communal act of speaking. The written word is what you wish to say, the spoken word is often nothing more than an accidental blurting out of syllables simply to fill a void or fulfill a social obligation. Sackville-West and Woolf would be pleased that we all accept so readily that they spoke as eloquently as they wrote.

And they did write superbly. I wanted to stop the action and scribble down every other line for my occasional book. Plays like this are the reason I don’t take notes during performances, because I would spend so much time writing down the mots juste that I wanted to remember that I would never see the play. If you are as smitten with the profound thoughts on life and love and art that are expressed in this script as I was, I recommend that you do as I am doing and buy or borrow the script and any other works by and about Sackville-West and Woolf that catch you eye.

Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf (1882-1941) and Victoria Mary Sackville-West Nicholson (1892-1962) were both born into special niches of British society. Woolf’s world was literature and publishing, and Sackville-West’s was that of the titled aristocracy. Both women were published and celebrated authors by the time they met in December, 1922. They were both married to men who were more companions than lovers. Sackville-West was notorious for her lesbian affairs, and there is little doubt that Woolf was one of her lovers, but, as is evident in their letters, their relationship was based on a connection much deeper and more profound than any physical attraction. Sackville-West and Woolf were true kindred spirits, who invented each other in their own imaginations and writings as much as they knew each other as real people.

In this second mounting of Atkins play by Shakespeare & Company Taylor-Williams and Randolph reprise their roles of last year. Taylor-Williams is a vibrant and sensual Vita while Randolph is a brilliant and shy Virginia. Randolph has played Woolf before in her impressive one-woman show A Room of One’s Own. There are actually subtle shades of resemblance between the actresses and the women they portray, only, of course, the actresses are better looking. Think of it as Vita and Virginia the way they wished that they looked instead of exactly how they did.

Dan McCleary has directed once again, and I felt as if he and his actresses put a stronger emphasis this time on the sensual aspect of the relationship. This did not detract from the other elements – nothing could detract from those glorious words – instead it heightened the drama of their couplings and separations and jealousies. There were moments of complete silence in the theatre as the two women locked eyes, moments when the performers drew you so deeply into their world that it was more real than the lovely Indian summer day visible outside of Spring Lawn.

The set in Spring Lawn is always mostly Spring Lawn, but for this play, which happens nowhere and everywhere over the course of two decades, Chastity Collins has done a fine job of providing enough set to allow the two actresses to have their separate abodes while also giving hints of the fantastic natural sights Sackville-West describes to Woolf from her many journeys. Virginia’s suicide by drowning is also handled gently by the slow descent of one of Collin’s softly painted watercolor scrims, three of which hang overhead, with more adorning the walls.

Jennifer Halpern has given Taylor-Williams and Randolph one basic outfit for each of the two acts, as well as a few hats, scarves, cardigans, etc. with which they can busy themselves and indicate the passage of time and changes of locale. Sackville-West was a dramatic figure and Halpern has given Taylor-Williams, a tall and slender woman with a figure reminiscent of the late Katharine Hepburn, bright colors and extravagant accessories. Randolph is shorter and rounder person, and Woolf was a notably dowdy dresser. Her first act dress makes her look quite lumpen while her second act skirt and blouse ensemble is more flattering without being wildly stylish.

Jason Fitzgerald has created a sound design that also helps establish time and place and thus move the play along.

Vita & Virginia will be performed by Shakespeare & Company through October 24 at the Spring Lawn Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Children 12 and up will probably enjoy this show, but be warned that the actresses do share two passionate kisses. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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