Those in the mood for shattering chandeliers and roller skating sea creatures will need to get their theatrical kicks elsewhere. Vita and Virginia, a new adaptation of Eileen Atkins’ 1994 play presented by the No Frills Company, lives up to its producers’ minimalist name: the setting is spare and unchanging, and nothing really "happens." The play’s pared-down aesthetics and lack of action, however, only shift the focus to more important things—namely, acting and content. Resplendent performances by Patricia Elliot and Kathleen Chalfant in this two-woman show prove that dialogue alone—albeit in the form of impeccably strung sentences written by famed women of letters and spoken by two talented actresses—still has the power to hold a modern audience rapt.
Adapted from years of written correspondence between literary genius Virginia Woolf and her long-distance love, Vita Sackville-West, Vita and Virginia gracefully traces the pen-propelled courtship between two daring early 20th century women. When Virginia (Chalfant), the literary force behind pioneering works such as Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own, and aristocrat (and sub-par author) Vita (Elliot) meet at a party, the two women feel an instant attraction. After returning to her estate, Vita, a "pronounced Sapphist" whose platonically affectionate marriage to a man does little to curb her dalliances with women, begins writing Virginia witty, flirtatious letters. Virginia—though coy at first—responds in kind, sparking a complicated and touching 20-year relationship that is occasionally sexual, but always romantic.
Eileen Atkins skillfully cuts and pastes two decades worth of letters into a tight script that chronologizes the women’s developing love through an almost rhythmic dialogue. Ms. Chalfant and Ms. Elliot animate their written exchange of words with a flowing musical cadence that is heavy where it should be and light and lilting where it shouldn’t.
As the actresses act out their characters’ prose through verbal inflection and physical expressions, it becomes obvious that the women’s mutual admiration stems from their stark differences in personality. Elliot’s Vita is bemused, colorful and carnivorous in life and love, at times overshadowing Chalfant’s unassuming, cerebral Virginia, who teases Vita, "You are at full sail on high tides while I’m coasting on backwaters." However, it is Ms. Chalfant’s intuitive embodiment of Virginia’s manic mind—characterized by bright bursts of humor and energy followed by spells of introspection and vulnerability—that delivers the evening’s most emotionally electric moments.
Mondays through April 3 at the Zipper Theatre.