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Wit and Tedium in Woolf's Room

A Room of One's Own Directed by Patrick Garland At the American Repertory Theatre Through October 5

By Ashwini Sukthankar

"A woman must have money and a room of one's own if she is to write fiction." It is around this ungrammatical but vivid observation that A Room of One's Own, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's book of the same name, is based. This play is a witty, thoughtful but often tedious reworking of the book.

Eileen Atkins, playing Woolf in this one-woman show, manages to hold the play together skillfully. Apart from a striking resemblance to Woolf, with her sharp features and elongated face, Atkins' movements and voice have the rather brittle, jerky quality one might expect from Woolf herself. Atkins also demonstrates the almost androgynous aura that Woolf exudes in her book.

Patrick Garland, the director (and, incidentally, the person who adapted A Room of One's Own) has developed a format that is sufficiently entertaining to sustain the audience's attention. Garland retains the basic structure of the book, which consists of a series of lectures delivered by Woolf on the uplifting topic of Women and Fiction.

The lecture, delivered to a group of women college students in 1928, deals with what Woolf calls "the reprehensible poverty of our sex"--i.e. why women are not taught "the great art of making money." The play focuses on Woolf's opinion concerning women's need for a private income. A Room of One's Own gives little mention of her views on women's need for privacy, making the title of the play seem somewhat obsolete. "Fiction should stick to facts," as Woolf herself says. And that is a criticism which one could make of the play. Although it captures much of the spirit of Woolf's book, it ignores most of the substance.

A Room of One's Own is divided into clearly defined halves. The first portion is basically orchestrated wandering, lacking any real theme. Woolf flits from one topic to another, pausing at length to discuss Fanny Burney and the Brontes, the laws which forbade women to own property and the women's college at Cambridge University.

On this last topic, Woolf waxes bittersweet. She attacks with venomous humor the state of affairs that allows men's colleges to sup off partridges and wine and dwell in marble halls, while women's colleges are unable to afford anything better than beef, water and bricks. Here and elsewhere in the play, Woolf emphasizes that pure intelligence is not enough for women who want to succeed in life. They also must know how to struggle.

The first half ends with one of the several voice-overs which have apparently been inserted into this production to avoid the tedium inherent in a one-person show. Unfortunately, this interesting directoral touch is marred by Atkins' annoying actions with her cigarettes, which divert the audience's attention.

The second half of this play is more structured. Woolf speaks mainly on the theme of Women and Fiction. Why are there so many strong and willful women in the fiction of ages past (Lady Macbeth, Anna Karenina and Desdemona among them) and so few in real life? What happened to writers like Jane Austen who did not have money and a room of their own? How did it suddenly become respectable for women to earn money by their pens?

On the whole, the script is cleverly handled. The pseudo-lectures are full of amusing anecdotes and sly witticisms, and they are redolent with Woolf's typically ironic inconsequentiality. Unfortunately, one often loses the thread of what is being said and misses the point of the rambling monologue. Also, the vein of deep resentment running through the book is sometimes reduced to dramatic whining in the play.

Bruce Goodrich's set is suitably angular and spartan--a wooden wall lined with a grim row of sepia photographs forms the background. And a lectern, table and three chairs (all at severe right angles to each other) serve as the only furniture. The set's rigidity contrasts well with the informality of Atkins' movements and gestures, just as the bright green table cloth sets off her purple suit.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the play shows Woolf relating a vivid fantasy about an fictitious sister of William Shakespeare. The sister had the same imagination, the same verve, and the same genius as her brother. Lacking his gender, however, she was doomed to failure. This, more than any other scene, demonstrates the difficulty which women writers have in achieving recognition.

The final passage (Woolf aptly calls it her "peroration") is out of character with the rest of the play. The crisp sarcasm and dry humor deteriorate into slightly forced melodrama and moralizing that have very little Virginia Woolf in them.

A Room of One's Own is a capably directed play with inspiring acting. Though occasionally boring and clumsily adapted, it would provide a worthwhile evening's entertainment for any Bloomsbury buff.

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