One of the lesser reasons to see — and listen raptly to —
Vita & Virginia, now playing on Monday nights at the Zipper Factory, is that plays based on correspondence are about to become an endangered species. Let’s put it this way: Had close friends and eventual lovers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West been able to text each other between 1924 and 1941, it’s doubtful that adapter Eileen Atkins would have had the wealth of material available to arrange Vita & Virginia for herself and Vanessa Redgrave to enact in 1994 and for Kathleen Chalfant and Patricia Elliott to revisit now in this elegant revival.
Vita (Elliott) and Virginia (Chalfant) first met at a “marvelous party” (in the words of pal Noel Coward) given by Bloomsbury painter Clive Bell, who was married to Woolf’s sister Vanessa, and they instantly became besotted with each other. Both were prolific writers; Woolf’s adventurous prose is still fawned over, while Sackville-West’s is mostly out of print. When they began their mostly epistolary relationship, they were gladly committing themselves to a seduction through the mails. Indeed Woolf knew that Sackville-West was “a pronounced Sapphist” (read aggressive lesbian), and was in no way reluctant to play along.
Through the next 17 years — ending with Woolf’s 1941 suicide by drowning — the two enamored women courted each other with flattery and mockery. Although Vita reports being dazzled by Virginia’s novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia favors Vita with double-edged praise. On the other hand, Vita’s extensive flirting with other women gnaws at Virginia, who remains faithful to Vita as well as to her husband Leonard.
In expressing their viewpoints on a variety of subjects, both of them fashioned sentiments as grand as anything they’d write for published works. “On the peaks of Italian mountains and beside green lakes,” Sackville-West exclaims in pen and ink, “I am writing a story for you. I shut my eyes to the blue of gentians. I shut my ears to the brawling of rivers. I shut my nose to the scent of pines.” Woolf waxes, “I try to invent you for myself, but find I really have only two twigs and three straws to do it with. I can get the sensation of seeing you — hair, lips, color, height, even, now and then, the eyes and hands, but I find you going off, to walk in the garden, to play tennis, to dig, to sit smoking and talking, and then I can’t invent a thing you say.”
No one could be jailed for insisting these outpourings are plummy in the best English tradition, complete with modulated English accents. But they’re also inebriating as delivered by Chalfant and Elliott. Chalfant — who reads when she needs to with glasses perched at the end of a real nose that looks more Woolf-like than the false one Nicole Kidman assumed for her Oscar-winning performance in The Hours — and Elliot (who is draped in wine-red velvet that makes her resemble a drapery) only occasionally look at each other as if Vita and Virginia are in each other’s company. But they constantly react to the writing. Chalfant is an often abashed and sometimes imperious Virginia, while the patrician Elliott is a confident Vita, someone used to getting her way and protesting vehemently when she doesn’t.
As much as we learn about the women, Vita & Virginia is also interesting for what it doesn’t say about them. There’s very little reference in the letters to any physical contact between the two women; it’s all refined British suggestion. Only once does Vita say she’s reluctant to tangle with Virginia’s “madness”; and at the end, there’s noticeably no hint that Virginia is suicidally depressed. They’re simply two elegant ladies in highly literate love.