Septimus and Clarissa
nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
September 9, 2011
A wildly pivoting grand staircase in the beginning of Septimus and Clarissa draws you into the stormy interior world of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Ellen McLaughlin, who adapted Woolf’s novel, and director Rachel Dickstein have superbly captured the impressionism of the novel through fusing Woolf’s indelible prose with music and movement. Whole passages are recited verbatim by the ensemble cast, who often speak about themselves in the third person, while shifting fluidly from one character to the next without even a change of hat. Yet the success of the play is that the intellectual rigor and literacy of the piece never feels arcane or remote; the play is poignant and immediate and arresting, as if a window had been flung open, revealing the innermost thoughts of passersby on the street.
Like the novel, Septimus and Clarissa essentially weaves together the interior monologues of several Londoners on a beautiful day in June just after the first World War. We follow wealthy socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party that evening and shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Warren Smith as he fights a losing battle with his private demons. Though the two never meet and are from vastly different social circles, they mirror one another in a strange fundamental way, each struggling between inner desire and outer conformity, each possessing a hyper-sensitive observation of the world around them. The play tenderly reveals the undercurrents of life: the irrevocable decisions that led each character to the life they lead, the way the past co-exists with the present, the momentary connection created between strangers as they watch an airplane spelling letters in the sky.
But at heart, what really gives the play its gravitational undertow is the legacy of war, the nearness of death. “The War was over,” the characters reiterate, as if reassuring themselves, “The nightmare was over.” Yet it clearly isn’t over for Septimus, who is still reeling from the death of his close friend Evans just before Armistice, and despite the loveliness of the day, everyone on the street jumps when a car backfires, thinking they’ve just heard a gunshot. Clarissa too, has just nearly died from influenza, and the small moments of life have an added resonance, a somber sweetness, not just for her but also for her husband and daughter.
As Clarissa Dalloway, Ellen McLaughlin is a compelling center of affection, alternately regal and vulnerable. The cast is uniformly excellent. Tom Nelis poignantly portrays Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh, who unexpectedly shows up at her doorstep after decades in India, still balled-up and wounded by her rejection. Henry Stram is excellent as Richard Dalloway, the reliable, reserved House of Commons MP whom Clarissa married. He also transforms wonderfully into the pompous great doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. As the tormented Septimus Warren Smith, Tommy Schrider scampers up and down the pivoting staircase pursued by imaginary Furies, settling down for one affecting moment of lucidity before finally succumbing to his terrors. Craig Baldwin, who plays the sulking young Peter Walsh and stalks Septimus as the dead Evans, also has a wonderful moment as a sentimental little man on the street hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen.
Besides agilely playing a multitude of nuanced roles, the actors tumble and grapple with one another in choreography that splendidly physicalizes the interior life of the characters. In one exquisite sequence, LeeAnne Hutchison as the young Clarissa Dalloway is turned around and around until she is suspended almost horizontally in air, sublimely illustrating the lightness of love and its all-too-fleeting power of transcendence. In breathtaking moments like these, Septimus and Clarissa inventively brings to life the intimate musing of Woolf’s groundbreaking novel. Speaking to us from the short reprieve between the two wars, she reminds us how precious life is and how brief is the span between birth and death.