- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Do you believe that e-mails can’t hold a candle to the thoughtfulness and tactility of putting pen to paper? If so, you will delight in the sinuous language of “Vita & Virginia,” an epistolary play by English actress Eileen Atkins charting the loving friendship between novelist Virginia Woolf (Paula Gruskiewicz) and writer-gardener Vita Sackville-West (MaryBeth Wise).

The Sapphic element inherent in their relationship cannot be denied — Miss Sackville-West was a highborn free spirit infamous for her dalliances with both sexes — yet the allure of the play lies not in the carnal, but in the spiritual and intellectual.

There is no doubt that Miss Sackville-West was physically attracted to the decade-older Woolf and considered the sexually reticent author prime prey. Nor that Woolf was initially flattered by the younger woman’s intentions, and then found herself caught in a filigreed web of desire and stately seduction.

Much of their desire, however, was expressed not between the sheets, but on the sheet in the scores of letters they wrote to each other almost daily. In these letters, words sit on the page as satiny and plump as sweet butter. They use language like children lick icing off their fingers — with greedy joy.

“Vita & Virginia” illuminates the relationship between these two extremely different women who were joined by a common love of words and intellectual talk. As played with awkwardness and eagle-sharp awareness by Miss Gruskiewicz, Woolf is all brains and nerves, a feminist writer often crippled by shyness and self-consciousness, not to mention severe depression and mental breakdowns.

Miss Sackville-West, on the other hand, is all nerves and feral instinct, a forceful character who lives life with a swagger — as evidenced by Miss Wise’s spiky and romantic portrayal. In fact, when Woolf describes her friend, she likens her to stags and other wild creatures of the forest, and Miss Wise, indeed, embodies the character with animal grace and pounce.

The play accentuates the polarity of the women by positioning them chiefly on opposite sides of the stage — Woolf seated on her genially shabby sofa surrounded by books and Miss Sackville-West stalking in a suggestion of a sleek art deco parlor. Every so often they meet in the middle for a nuzzle, but for the most part they remain in their corners like boxers sizing up their opponents in the ring. They seem most alive to each other in their missives and in the waiting to see each other, rather than in the actual time spent together.

Holly Highfil’s simple set makes effective use of panels decorated in William Morris patterns to evoke not only the time period but Miss Sackville-West’s extensive travels throughout Asia and Europe.

The first act is the far more successful of the two, as you are entranced by both women’s command of language. It is also the early part of their relationship, when they are trying hard to beguile and woo each other with words, and the audience gets to share their ardent eagerness.

The second act is darker and more drawn out, as the slow seduction gives way to what seems like one of the most protracted breakups in history. They seem to fall out of love one syllable at a time, and all the discovery and charm of the first act gives way to a sour, wearily co-dependent suspicion and disenchantment.

After all this deliberateness and hanging on, the ending is quite abrupt, as if someone pulled the Persian rug right out from under Miss Sackville-West’s pampered feet.

She gets word of Woolf’s suicide via a letter, and the shock she expresses seems uncharacteristically restrained and curt for someone whose writings and actions indicate a woman who throws herself into life.

It seems as though Miss Atkins was also seduced by Woolf and Miss Sackville-West’s talent with the pen, since some judicious editing would make the play more a novella than a tome. But talk is cheap these days in every sense of the word, so spending a few hours savoring the tart, plummy language of “Vita & Virginia” is an expense that enriches the mind.

***

WHAT: “Vita & Virginia” by Eileen Atkins

WHERE: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 22.

TICKETS: $13 to $22

PHONE: 410/772-4900

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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