Truth Obscured

Play about Woolf skirts complex issues

In her company's newsletter, Lee Patton Chiles, producer, playwright and director of All a Woman Needs: Virginia Woolf, admits that she's not a big Virginia Woolf fan. This might explain the curiously simplistic production being presented by the Historyonics Theatre Company.

A cast of topnotch actors, led by Kari Ely and R. Travis Estes, do their best with the material, but the play lacks the human complexity and mystery that made Woolf, her relationships and her writing compelling. The script is not helped by the set design: four small playing areas, symmetrically proportionate. The balance of the set makes no sense, given the imbalances of Virginia's life, and the placement of actors in the small spaces is repetitive and sometimes awkward. As a director, Chiles needs to help the actors clarify their variously British accents and their physical aging; though the smartly designed costumes by Michele Friedman Siler change as time passes, the characters don't seem to grow older.

Virginia's relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell, could provide material for several plays -- the sibling bond providing both support and pain, jealousy and love. One of the most revealing moments in their relationship happens through movement and music, when Clive Bell pulls Vanessa into a dance that segues into a kiss and a marriage proposal. As they kiss, Virginia turns away as if stabbed. Jenn Loui as Vanessa and Jerry Vogel as Clive convincingly portray the Bell's unorthodox marriage and are best in a scene of grief over their son's death -- Loui withdrawing from the world and Vogel standing helplessly alone.

Jenn Loui (top) and Kari Ely in All a Woman Needs: Virginia Woolf
Jenn Loui (top) and Kari Ely in All a Woman Needs: Virginia Woolf

The production's primary focus is on the relationship between Virginia and Leonard Woolf, her supportive husband -- indeed, the play should more accurately be titled: All a Woman Needs: Leonard Woolf. Virginia makes it clear that she is not interested in a physical relationship, but with Leonard's assurance that he loves her more for her mind than her body, they agree to marry. Their wedding-night scene is touchingly played, with Virginia's memory of being molested as a child providing clear motivation for her ambiguity about sex. Estes is believable and engaging as Leonard, from his subtle trembling hand to his agony of love for Virginia.

Ely plays Virginia's confused sexuality and nervous breakdowns with energy and truth, but she's severely limited by the script. The second act goes back and forth between the same two scenes (with slight variations): Virginia professing love for Leonard and Virginia insane and suicidal. Leonard is shown as a martyr, standing solidly by through these years. But martyrs and madness are only dramatic if the relationship between them is probed, if the difficult and painful truths are exposed, and this text skips lightly over those hard times, sanitizing the messy truth of mental illness and its effects on everyone involved.

Also cleaned up, as if making Virginia's story "rated G," is her lesbian relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Carrie Hegdahl brings freshness and vitality to the role of Vita, and her interactions with Ely as Virginia crackle with unspoken possibilities. But just as quickly as she arrives and inspires Virginia to write Orlando, she is gone -- their four-year relationship excused by a narrator assuring us that even if there was any sexual nature to their relationship, it was only passing and somehow not at all important.

Virginia wanted to reveal the truth of women's experience, to get underneath the surfaces of life. "Nothing can protect one from the assault of the truth," she claimed. It's that relentless truth that's missing from All a Woman Needs. Woolf's novels expose reality through stream of consciousness, internal monologues and unexplainable jumps in time, place and sex. This script is a year-to-year history lesson about Woolf's life that misses the point of her art. Joe Dreyer's haunting piano accompaniment, coloring scenes with a brush of Beethoven, provides a glimpse of the compelling theatrical experience that could have bloomed if Chiles had taken a lesson from Virginia and used a more nonlinear, impressionistic style.

 
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