The Bagaduce Theatre closes its third season with a stunning production of “Vita and Virginia,” a play that brings to life the nearly two-decade long correspondence between novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita Sackville.
Directed by Donna Snow, the show is perfect for the 1850s barn on the Fowler Farm in Brooksville where the theater is located. The audience feels like it is eavesdropping on a conversation between the women as the letters are brought lovingly to life by Leigh Adel-Arnold as Vita and Monique Fowler as Virginia.
While the play could be presented as readers’ theater with the actresses sitting on stools and reading from scripts, Snow chose to have Vita and Virginia most often speak to the audience as if reading the letters aloud. But once in a while, the characters talk directly to each other and even kiss.
In the hundreds of letters the women exchanged, each laid bare her fears, disappointments, jealousies and frustrations. They also wrote passionately of their love for own another and how each influenced the other’s work.
“The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf” was published in 1985, less than a decade after their affair was made public by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, in a biography about his parents’ marriage.
British actress Eileen Atkins turned the letters into a two-woman play and portrayed Woolf in the first productions in the early 1990s. A movie version of “Vita and Virginia” premiered earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival.
The women met at a dinner party in late 1922 and corresponded regularly until Woolf’s suicide in March 1941. Sackville-West died in 1962 at the age of 70 from cancer.
Adel-Arnold bears a striking resemblance to the young Sackville-West, who was 10 years younger than Woolf. She captures the privileged woman’s sense of adventure, her natural ability to charm and influence those she cared about, and her willingness to take risks in a highly structured society no matter the consequences.
Sackville-West’s influence over Woolf, her work and her family’s finances were enormous. Adel-Arnold never becomes overbearing in the role, despite Sackville-West’s instructions on how Woolf should ignore advice from family and physicians, and focus on her work.
Woolf did that and the result was one her most productive periods including the publication of her novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Inspired by Sackville-West, it is the story of a poet who switches gender from male to female and back again. The protagonist lives for centuries, interacting with key figures in English literature.
Despite her frequent lapses in physical fidelity to Woolf, Sackville-West, as portrayed in the Bagaduce Theatre production, never stopped loving Woolf and was devoted to helping her overcome the ailments that prevented her from writing. Adel-Arnold makes that devotion the centerpiece of her layered portrayal of Sackville-West.
Fowler’s Woolf is a woman full of trepidation, more concerned about the reaction friends will have to her work than in the creative process, until she surrenders to the charms of Sackville-West. The actress slowly lets Woolf’s self-confidence grow as the two women correspond. The hurt Fowler portrays over Sackville-West’s affairs with other lovers is palpable.
The women’s correspondence moves from the personal to the political in the second act as the Nazis come to power and World War II begins. Fowler wears Woolf’s depression over the bombing of London and her inability to handle another loss of thousands of young men like a shroud. Woolf’s decision to end her life seems like a reasonable response to an untenable situation because Fowler’s portrayal is so complex and complete.
Besides being a biographical play, “Vita and Virginia” glaringly exposes what has been lost due to technology. E-mails, tweets, Snapchats and texting have made the art of letter writing extinct. It is hard to imagine those kinds of communications ever being brought to life on stage, allowing theatergoers to glimpse into the souls of two people who had the lasting impact on literature that Woolf did.
“Vita and Virginia” will be performed through Sept. 30 at Bagaduce Theatre, 176 Mills Point Road, Brooksville. For information, call 207-801-1536, or visit bagaducethatre.com.
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