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Cloud 42

at Live Bait Theater

Neither the reclusive Emily Dickinson, nor the crippled Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nor the insane Zelda Fitzgerald has been given the popular attention devoted to such self-destructive women of letters as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Suicide often appears to be one of the chief distinguishing characteristics of female authors, stereotyped as bravely concealing their pain–in a manner we’re all too willing to speculate about once the subject is no longer in a position to contradict our impudence.

Virginia Woolf has certainly contributed her share to this image of female authors. The product of an unhappy childhood–the traumas of which included the untimely death of her mother, the icy domination of her father, and sexual molestation by her stepbrother–Adeline Virginia Stephen early on began to show signs of a nervous disorder and today would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive. After her marriage to the gentle and protective Leonard Woolf, her mental breakdowns continued, accompanied by attempts at suicide. Their acquisition of a printing press and the establishment of their own publishing house gave her boundless energies an outlet, as she printed and distributed not only her writings but those of the soon-to-be-famous crowd that gathered around her in the London suburb of Bloomsbury, including T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Bertrand Russell, and William Butler Yeats. An emotional outlet was provided by her love affair with the prolific author Vita Sackville-West, the wife of an acquaintance. But after the outbreak of World War II and the bombing of London any peace and security Virginia Woolf may have found was destroyed. Fearing the onset of another breakdown, she left a note declaring her unwillingness to put herself and her loved ones through another ordeal, filled her pockets with heavy stones, and drowned herself in the river near the Woolfs’ country home.

Edna O’Brien’s professed intent to remove her subject’s biography from the exclusive realm of “scholars and literary people” is apparent in her rejection of a sensationalistic approach to Woolf’s life as well as her eschewing any tendency to reduce her to a case study. O’Brien also appears to maintain a certain skepticism toward her protagonist’s accounts of the events around her–it takes nothing away from genius to suggest that it may not always be the most accurate reporter. Though we meet characters through Woolf’s impressions of them, O’Brien does not require them to conform precisely to those descriptions. There is in O’Brien’s play relatively little about Woolf’s literary output–extensive information may be readily found elsewhere. But there’s a better focus on the more lucid moments of the author’s life, though her devastation by imagined voices and fearful hallucinations is depicted in vivid, if brief, detail.

The tableau that opens Cloud 42’s production–with its passionate violin music, filmy drapes, ethereal blue lighting, and projected slides of rippled water (almost unrecognizable, being projected onto the gathered drapes)–threatens to undo O’Brien’s effort to ground her topic. But all misgivings are dispelled with the entrance of Kelly Nespor, whose Virginia Woolf fairly bristles with vigor and vitality, in no way resembling the neurasthenic wraith we have come to expect. Possibly the most virtuosic oral interpreter in Chicago (remember her marathon performance in last year’s A Farm Under a Lake?), Nespor keeps her character physically and psychologically alert even in her quietest moments. She also manages to bring out the considerable charm and humor of the woman who speaks of “innocent bread and butter” and wears a party dress made of upholstery fabric “because it was cheaper and also more adventurous.” (The look of suspicion Nespor flashes at Leonard after he declares that the printing press will be “good for you, something physical” is itself worth a Jeff citation.) The other characters surrounding this forceful personality tend to recede, but Harry Althaus, as the patient and devoted Leonard, holds his own admirably, as does Julia Fabris, who plays Vita Sackville-West with an engaging swagger. Director Ted Altschuler and his cast are to be congratulated for liberating Woolf from the idolatry in which scholars and mythmakers have so long imprisoned her. Art belongs on a pedestal, not artists.