'Vita & Virginia' is a subtle affair


The debate about same-sex marriage gives a particular relevance to Vita & Virginia, the current production by Rep Stage. Eileen Atkins' play dramatizes the affair between the British writers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

It is an absorbing production that maintains Rep Stage's high standards.

Vita was married to a diplomat, Harold Nicolson, and had two sons but had many relationships with women. An adventurous person who loved to travel in remote lands, she was also a prolific writer of novels, poems, travel books and, later in life, gardening books.

The name "Vita" -- an appropriate one because of her tremendous energy -- was an act of rebellion. As the daughter of a noble, she was styled the Honorable Victoria Mary Sackville-West.

Virginia Stephen, daughter of a noted scholar, came from the middle class and married the writer Leonard Woolf. She was a novelist, critic, publisher and feminist, and was 10 years older than Vita. She had an inward-looking personality and a modest manner.

All her life she suffered from anxiety, and twice she experienced mental breakdowns, a fact only hinted at in the script.

Such characters are a feast for serious actors, and the Rep Stage cast brings the two women to life. MaryBeth Wise is a dashing Vita, with bold stride and masculine bearing. Paula Gruskiewicz plays the quiet, insecure Virginia with a subtlety of facial expression that makes her as interesting as Vita.

In dialogue drawn from letters written by the two women, the play follows their lives from 1925 until the early years of World War II. At first, they are not acquainted but admire each other's writing. Vita suggests a meeting, and they discover a great deal in common. Both have husbands to whom they are devoted. They share a love of language and literature.

Their association becomes physical. As the relationship matures, they discuss writing technique and analyze each other's personalities. Their exchanges are literate -- sometimes poetic, occasionally comic.

The subtle and fluid direction of Lisa A. Wilde keeps the two players physically separated for a long time, but Act II finds them together, cozy and domestic on a sofa.

Their relationship follows a familiar course. Virginia shows signs of independence; Vita reveals a possessive streak. Jealous of Vita's obsessive affairs with younger women, Virginia becomes acid and cutting. There is a reconciliation, and the two women go to France together, but the jealousy remains.

At the end of the 1930s, war comes. Amid air-raid sirens and the noise of German planes, Vita and Virginia mourn the loss of relatives, friends and homes. They are now more old friends than lovers. The play ends in 1941 as Vita hears of Virginia's suicide.

The costumes designed by Kathleen Geldard could tell the audience all about Vita and Virginia. Virginia wears dowdy clothes and a shapeless hat that she rarely takes off. Vita lives in breeches and boots, a sombrero, a suede waistcoat, and a long riding coat (replaced in Act II by a short jacket). Her only concession to conventional feminine dress is a string of pearls.

The imaginative set, designed by Holly Highfil, is made up of eight or 10 flats standing monolithically around the stage and painted with a variety of colorful designs: floral, geometric, abstract. Vita has the job now and then of rotating a flat 180 degrees while delivering her lines. The pattern on the other side of the flat is meant to enhance the mood of the moment.

This clever if cumbersome device works best at the end of the play, when Virginia turns a row of flats edge-on to the audience. The sudden absence of color gives the scene a striking feeling of desolation.

Rep Stage presents Vita & Virginia at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee this week), and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 22 in Theatre Outback, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Reservations: 410-772-4900.

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