Literary pair lives on stage

Play: Rep Stage looks at the unconventional relationship of writers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West through the women's correspondence.

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January 22, 2004|By R.N. Marshall | R.N. Marshall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Feminist writer and publisher Virginia Woolf and poet-novelist Vita Sackville-West shared a complex, tempestuous, passionate and inspirational relationship for 20 years until Woolf's suicide in 1941.

The saga of these two women's lives together, based on their correspondence, has been beautifully crafted into a play by acclaimed actress Eileen Atkins. Vita & Virginia will be presented by Rep Stage, the professional theater company in residence at Howard Community College in Columbia, beginning Jan. 30.

Premiering off-Broadway in 1994, Vita & Virginia was directed by Zoe Caldwell with Atkins in the role of the sensitive and often emotionally troubled Woolf and the adventuresome and brash Sackville-West played by Vanessa Redgrave.

The Rep Stage production will feature two engaging Maryland actors, MaryBeth Wise as Sackville-West and Paula Gruskiewicz as Woolf. They have worked together before, and their friendship facilitates the growth of their relationships in the play. Each says she envisioned the other in her role before auditioning.

"I had seen the New York production and was inspired by these characters," Wise says. She immediately thought of Gruskiewicz as Woolf, whom she identified with the author's gentle nature.

Both women speak of their onstage personas with the same enthusiasm and joy for language and visual expression that Sackville-West and Woolf shared in life. One finishes sentences of the other, as close friends do.

"Richness comes from how these women constantly painted pictures with words of what they were seeing," Gruskiewicz says. "Vita clearly inspired Virginia, and her writing uses a language of vibrant images."

Sackville-West wrote: "The waterfalls in Switzerland were frozen into solid incandescent curtains of ice hanging over the rock; so lovely. And Italy all blanketed in snow."

"Vita clearly inspired Virginia, and her writing uses a language of vibrant images," Gruskiewicz says.

"They fueled each other's imaginations and creativity," Wise says.

Members of the Bloomsbury group in London, Woolf and Sackville-West met at a dinner party in 1922 given by art critic Clive Bell. Their friendship quickly turned into a love affair. Although both were married, Sackville-West was "a pronounced Sapphist," according to the diary of Woolf, who had her share of extramarital affairs.

Director Lisa A. Wilde, a fifth-season resident dramaturg and literary manager for Rep Stage, points out that the years of her relationship with Sackville-West coincided with "a period of great creative productivity" in Woolf's career.

That period was primarily after the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, and the character is not the Woolf portrayed in the film The Hours, the director says.

"Vita & Virginia covers a much happier time in Woolf's life," Wilde says.

Vita & Virginia is brought to vivid life through detailed and spectacular words often written "while on a train gazing out a window, or sitting on the back of a camel," Wise says.

"We don't write letters anymore," Wilde says. "Today's e-mails are drafts of dry data, mostly informational. These letters had passion, advice, solace and great humor."

Atkins has masterfully intertwined text from the original letters so that the 20 years presented in her play flow seamlessly through scenes, monologues and retrospectives.

The set design by Holly Highfil will use hand-painted screens with vivid silk patterns, reflecting the era of the story and changing subtly during the action.

Vita & Virginia will be presented from Jan. 30 to Feb. 22 at Rep Stage, Theatre Outback, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. There will be no Saturday matinees Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. Tickets are $13 to $22, with a $2 discount for senior citizens. Students with identification pay $10. A reception is planned after the Jan. 30 performance; a discussion will be held after the Feb. 6 performance. Information: 410-772-4900 or www.howard cc.edu/repstage.

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