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Weekly Alibi Tinder and Flint

By Kelle Shillaci

FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  It was a dinner party on Dec. 14, 1922, when Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West first met. The former was captivated and "muzzy-headed" by Vita, whom she found to be "hard, handsome, (and) manly." The shy writer studied Vita's manner throughout that first evening, marveling at her ease of conversation and diplomatic air. Vita, a member of the ancient, aristocratic Kent family, was, in turn, drawn to the "quiet unaffectedness" of Virginia. Though she found her dressing style to be "quite atrocious," she saw a spiritual beauty in Virginia that sparked an enduring love affair that would last through two decades until Virginia's continually straining mental health finally deteriorated into suicide.

The affair was an emotional one: Vita, a highly sexually-driven adventurer-traveler-diplomat, never found complete satisfaction with Virginia's timid, self-described "frigid" asexuality. Thus, much of their affair was long distance and literary, with Vita gallivanting about Persia fulfilling her physical and adventuresome needs, while Virginia, prone to health problems, remained in the safety capsule of her small academic social circle.

The letters the two women exchanged during these times of separation are the basis of Eileen Atkins' production of Vita and Virginia, currently playing at the Riverside Theatre. Vita, played by Sally Sommer, is stately and strong, decked out in riding pants, boots, frilly blouses and her signature pearls. Lois Viscolli is superbly cast in a truly remarkable portrayal of the frail, ill-dressed Virginia who, despite her sickly appearance, is one of the most witty, emotional and vulnerable characters you'll ever encounter. Viscolli comes as close to the real thing as I can imagine, granting her depiction of Virginia carefully understated tenderness and depth.

Using their actual letters, Atkins creates a dialogue between the two women that is tactile, interactive and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. They react to each other's words, sometimes growing passionate, as when overcome by "doggedly, dismally" missing one another, and other times becoming enraged and jealous, as when Vita takes Mary Campbell as a lover. But the most impassioned arguing, misunderstanding and loving arises when the two women compete in their most sacred affection: writing. Vita is torn by what she considers Virginia's superior skills and is "dejected because I could never write like that, encouraged because someone can." They banter about such things as poetry versus prose emotion and rhythm versus words, but at the core is something much deeper than writerly competitiveness, as Virginia explains to a far-away Vita, saying, "I miss you in a quite simple, desperate way ... I think of you instead of my novel."

Viscolli and Sommer rarely falter in their posts, successfully bringing to life the delicate nuances of a sustained romance, never sensationalizing lesbianism for the sake of lesbianism or stereotyping Virginia's often overly-hyped mental illness. From Virginia's trembling lips and quivering hands to Vita's enduring posture and ineffable grace, the two are unabashedly real from start to finish, gradually evolving in each other's presence. Atkins' adherence to the documented letters allows the writers to tell their own stories, but it couldn't have worked if the actresses hadn't slid so gracefully and completely into their roles. More than just a tale of romance, this play is a literary feast.


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