Virginia Woolf was one of English literature’s giants. Vita Sackville-West, a novelist, poet and noted garden designer, was an award-winning author not in Woolf’s rarified league.
Yet the meeting of the two English writers in 1922 ignited a passion for each other that would wax and wane until Woolf’s death by suicide in 1941.
Eileen Atkins, the great British actress who first portrayed Woolf in the solo show A Room of One’s Own, pored through the letters and diaries of Woolf and Sackville-West to create her 1992 play Vita & Virginia, in which she played Woolf opposite Vanessa Redgrave as Sackville-West.
Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre has taken on the challenge of what can be a rather static epistolary piece, making Vita & Virginia the second production in the company’s welcoming new space at The Vanguard on Andrews Avenue. Founder and artistic director Nicole Stodard has said she wants all kinds of theater (and other types of performances) to find a home at The Vanguard. Certainly, Atkins’ play is markedly different from the first Vanguard show, the warm-hearted musical Always ... Patsy Cline.
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Stodard has a pair of fine South Florida actors, Barbara Sloan as Woolf and Niki Fridh as Sackville-West, bringing the correspondence and diary entries to life. She also infuses her staging with motion, having a silent maid/dresser attend to both women, moving the actors behind sheer panels or to different corners of the theater or do separate areas depicting their homes, even placing them side-by-side on the front seat of a “car” so that while driving, Sackville-West can gently caress Woolf’s knee.
Running a bit over two hours with an intermission, Vita & Virginia is dense with dialogue (or, more accurately, passages from letters and diaries juxtaposed to create dialogue). Sloan and Fridh have memorized torrents of words, passages laced with references to the women’s husbands (Leonard Woolf and Sir Harold Nicholson), to the Bloomsbury Group, to the Woolfs’ publishing house Hogarth Press, to numerous authors. And to the numerous other women in Sackville-West’s life.
The show’s program contains short biographies and bibliographies of the writers, as well as a glossary of people and places referenced in the play. If you aren’t a Woolf aficionado or know little about Sackville-West, do take the time to read the material before the show as it will enrich your experience.
Sloan, who looks like a more attractive version of Woolf, has the greater dramatic challenge in playing a more introverted, contemplative character prone to illness and bouts of deep depression. The passion and jealousy Sackville-West awakened in Woolf allow Sloan moments of intensity that quicken the pulse of the play.
Fridh gets, and runs with, the showier role. Her sensuous, vibrant Vita has a lust for life, for the exotic wanderings of a diplomat’s wife and for women, the 10-years-older Woolf included. She’s witty, too. The sex-changing hero/heroine of Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography was modeled on Sackville-West, who declared with delight: “You’ve invented a new form of narcissism. I am in love with Orlando.”
The period costumes by Stodard and Casey Dressler also make statements about the characters, suggesting Sackville-West was beautifully attired (whether in feminine or masculine garb) while Woolf was more dowdy or careless (here, her slip hangs below her hemlines).
Always ... Patsy Cline was a mainstream introduction to The Vanguard for many theatergoers. Vita & Virginia, though, hews to the mission of a company that pointedly calls itself Thinking Cap.
If you go
What: ‘Vita & Virginia’ by Eileen Atkins.
Where: Thinking Cap Theatre production at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, through May 3.