Uncanny Room

About six weeks ago, a colleague whom I admire tremendously was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died on Tuesday morning, a fact I learned just before going to teach the first class after spring break, the first class on Mrs. Dalloway.

My colleague, Margaret (Mimi) Lamb was an older woman, a Vassar grad who left North Dakota and never looked back. More than once she told me that her Vassar professors used to say “our marriages are our failures.” She was a pistol: kind to people but utterly straight-shooting and uncompromising about literature and plays. She was a great, great New Yorker: the kind of person who, without pretense, would always know one deeper, cooler, richer thing about any place, any theater, any stone, any street corner, you happened to mention. She loved being alive—in spite of years tending to a chronically ill husband (who predeceased her) and poor health herself)—she was full of a zest for life, curiosity, engagement, sharpness. I so admire her. We both loved our Norwegian sweaters and had the same J. Jill corduroy jacket.

When her diagnosis came, it fell to me to staff her freshman class. Still, she had been teaching at Fordham for 33 years and, for all that I admired her, she was not a close friend. Nonetheless, through a friend who knew her better, whose loss is so much greater, I sent her a card and a copy of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench to keep her company in hospital.

On Sunday, we learned she’d been moved to hospice and would be glad for visitors. Four of us planned to visit Tuesday afternoon. I put on a vivid flowered skirt and tried not to worry about the hospice. Tuesday morning, right before class, the word came that she’d died.

Such a strange feeling. At once, the sadness of knowing that never again would I see her shambling by my office, papers under her arm, maybe stopping to tell me what was on her mind, maybe wearing one of the sweaters that she and I both love. At the same time, the guilty relief of not having to learn, yet again, how bad I am at hospitals and, worse, the recognition that I had my afternoon back to catch up on email.

But there was that class to teach. Sure, it was on Mrs. Dalloway, but I didn’t have a plan.

I talked—about moments of being, about Septimus’ madness in the park, about Woolf’s esteem for Jane Harrison.

After class, a dear friend who has a real West Coast 70s yoga vibe stopped by my office. He offered his condolences, admired my skirt, and said he could tell that my “energy” was with Mimi, that I was helping her make her transition.

I didn’t think much of it--I love that sincere spirituality, but do I believe it?--until I went to the play. Somehow, the intensity of my loss, of my love for Woolf, of my raw unpreparedness for class meant that I quoted for my students almost every passage that was central to Anne Bogart’s production. It was uncanny and beautiful. Maybe we can count it as a tribute to Mimi. May she rest in peace. We miss her here. 


My new obsession is Tobermory, Ontario, a small town on the Bruce Peninsula in Lake Huron, about 7 hours north of Clayton, NY.

Why, you ask, does a woman who spends her summers 7 hours north of New York City dream of spending a week 7 hours further north?

Because she can, dear reader, because she can.

It began with The Wind in the Willows, which accompanied us up to the River for the third year in a row. This year, however, we actually read a couple chapters aloud.

Then, one day, during 30 seconds of the 30 or 40 minutes of television the children watched all summer, there was an ad on t.v. for a new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s book, set on the St. Lawrence River, and coming to the stage in Gananoque in August.

I was sold. I got tickets. The girls and I got our passports and went. The girls loved it—just adored the show. I thought it was about as good as you might guess good regional theater in Ontario would be: the first act was terrific, the second relied a little too heavily on very rusty jokes (from Grahame’s book, but that was 1933) about a Toad in an Irish woman’s pink dress. It might have been 1950.

I was disappointed, too, to be sitting seven rows back with my little girls, behind a busload of old age pensioners. Why did the 80-year-olds get all the good seats? And it does spoil my time a little to be a good 40 years younger than the average audience member.

Nonetheless, the opening moments were fantastic. The opening scene takes place on the dock—Gananoque’s Singer Theater is the old Canoe Club—and we were treated to a few songs from David Archibald, the play’s co-author and composer.

“Up the River” opens with the actors singing and dancing on the dock. Mole comes on stage, welcomes spring, notices the River in wonder, and then Ratty (who, in the true Canadian spirit, keeps insisting he’s a Beaver. The Canada jokes were pretty tired but this one was funny.) actually rows up to the dock. Mole climbs on board and they row out to a little grass-covered float anchored near the dock. As they picnic, a wet-suited and flippered otter swims up and joins them. That was great summer family theater: witty and funny and worth the price of the ticket. (You can read a review here.)

I also liked David Archibald’s singing: very old school folk with a British Isles/Canadian/Great Lakes tinge (sincere, story-telling, sentimental about a park-like vision of wilderness). His song, “The Rocks of Tobermory” was haunting, so I looked him up.

Then I looked up Tobermory. There is nothing like a map to inflame my dreams of travel. Just look at that peninsula! And then listen to this:
Fathom Five is Canada's first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within it's boundaries. The deep clear water and the numerous shipwrecks attract over 8,000 divers each year. Glass bottom boat tours leave Tobermory several times each day to take visitors over the shipwrecks and to Flower Pot Island. The best known island in the Park features two 60 foot high 'flower pots', a lighthouse and walking trails.

When I lie awake worrying about the coming semester and all that I will have to do, I soothe myself back to sleep with promises of a trip to Tobermory next summer…

Frog and Toad Are Friends

I’d like to sing a little ode
about my good friend Toad,
Toad with whom I frequently take tea.

He’s not so good at sports,
and of course he’s got those warts
but Toad has been a lovely friend to me.
We took the girls to “A Year with Frog and Toad” at the Atlantic on Saturday. It was so adorable—nearly as good as last year’s awesome “Really Rosie.” The Atlantic’s children’s theater is so great. First, it’s affordable ($50 for 4 tickets—that’s practically free in NYC terms). Then, the theater itself, an old brick church, is both grand and homey. It makes the matinee into an occasion. (Pics here.)

But the songs are so charming. The opening song of friendship is all charm: admitting that one’s friend has warts but “has been a lovely friend to me” captures many deep and important ideas about friendship all in one: flaws, “loveliness”—that gentle, important, grounding quality, and then “to me,” because friendship is ours and special: it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it, he’s been my friend.

My kindergartener was delighted that some of the episodes she knows from her I Can Read books were featured in the show.

And the song, later in the show, about the pleasure of eating cookies is totally exuberant and joyous: Like the happiest love song ever, but song to the pleasure of gorging on cookies!
Eating cookies
Eating cookies
We’re so happy eating cookies
Cookies cookies cookies we adore….
The children were rapt.

I was interested to see Mark Linn-Baker thanked in the program. I always loved that silly sitcom, “Perfect Strangers,” and I liked him in it. It made me happy to think of him as a working actor, supporting this little venture.

But this morning, downloading the soundtrack for the kids on iTunes, I see that he originated the role of Toad on Broadway (the baby’s hands-down favorite character; the big girl just loved it all). What’s more, his wife Adrianne is the daughter of Arnold Lobel, the author of the Frog and Toad books. So three cheers for Mark Linn-Baker! And three cheers for great children’s theater in Chelsea.

Their run was extended for 2 weeks: this coming weekend is the last: call quick to reserve your seat!

PHOTO: Ahron R. Foster from the Playbill site.

The Women’s Project Presents Freshwater

When I first got word that there would be a first-ever professional production of Virginia Woolf’s only play, Freshwater, I was cautiously excited. It could be terrific; it could go so wrong in so many ways.

Freshwater is a farce, a little drawing room romp, that Woolf wrote for her niece Angelica’s birthday party. The inside jokes are thick and fast: Bloomsburies played on the roles of their Victorian elders. The characters are Julia Margaret Cameron, the great Victorian photographer (and Woolf’s great-aunt); her husband, Charles Hay Cameron; the painter George Frederick Watts; his child-bride Ellen Terry; Tennyson, and Lt. John Craig, the only character not based in history.

While Tennyson, the Camerons, and Watts expound on the purity and beauty of art (with Tennyson quoting himself often and at length), Ellen Terry chafes under the strictures of a life that is bohemian and strangely dull. She jumps at the chance to escape to Bloomsbury where she and her beau will dine on sausages and kippers, far from any nightingale’s song.

But allusions to “Maud” are just not hilarious to most people and there is little more tiresome than going to the theater to congratulate yourself on what a clever little English major you are. Director Anne Bogart, dramaturg Megan Carter (who came to talk to my class on Friday!! Thank you!), and the rest of the cast and crew have figured out ways to translate Woolf's highbrow farce for a 21st century audience. In doing so, they show us how funny Woolf can be, and, more importantly, have created a really fun, happy bon bon of a show.

This charming production begins with the glorious set: step off the frigid streets into the tiny, dark lobby of the Julia Miles Theater, and then, into the house itself to see James Schuette’s joyous set, lit like a summer’s day, festooned with a crazy amateurish patchwork curtain, sewn together from dozens of primary-colored pillowcases. The amazing Akiko Aizawa, playing the maid, sets the merry tone: she marches back and forth across the stage, military style, only to look out, sternly counting the audience and then, suddenly, girlishly, to break character, giggle and point, as if at friends and family. Meanwhile the actors backstage whisper and hush each other. It feels as much like being at a village pageant or a local theatrical as possible.

Then, out pops the daffy Gian Murray Gianino, in full Gilbert and Sullivan style military garb to sing “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor.”
All the nice girls love a sailor
All the nice girls love a tar
For there's something about a sailor
(Well you know what sailors are!)
It’s very hard not to smile. What a relief! Hilarious and delightful, the show continues, drawing from vaudeville, music hall and Monty Python to make sure that even long parodic speeches on the importance of art are full of pratfalls and laughter.

The show is funny and meant to be, but it also makes pointed fun of the self-absorption of artists. Woolf admired artistic dedication, but, as director Anne Bogart pointed out in the talk-back after the show, it’s also about not hurting others in the pursuit of art. For this, the youthful Ellen Terry is our guide: she is bored, posing for a painting, and no one cares. It’s one thing for Watts to dedicate his life to perfecting a painting, but quite another to demand his wife spend her days perfectly still. This is the comic version of Woolf’s critique of Milton and Carlyle.

I have a lot more to say, but other things in my day are calling. You can read reviews in Variety and the New York Times.

“Freshwater” is playing in limited run until February 15. There are discounts available, but even the full-priced tickets are an affordable $42. It’s a little dose of summer in midwinter. Do go!


When I was younger and less ambitious—or just as ambitious but more naïve—I thought of projects like Edna O’Brien’s “Virginia” as derivative donkey work.

Now I see the incredible care and art that goes into creating a script—and, for director Joannie Mackenzie, cutting it—that blends together biography, fiction, essays, diaries, and letters.

Although I’ve known of the show “Virginia,” I’d never seen it before Sunday. It was a really satisfying show. I know Woolf well enough that nothing surprised, but O’Brien and the actors’ spin on familiar material was a real delight. I particularly loved the way Woolf’s haunting story “Lappin and Lapinova,” becomes a metaphor for the Woolfs’ marriage. The story is about a sweet young bride who imagines her husband as a rabbit king. He indulges her, and the nightly fairy tale becomes a path to intimacy. Then, he tires of the story and asks her to stop it. The story has one of the best final lines I know:

So that was the end of that marriage.

Hearing that story alluded to at Sunday’s staged reading in the basement of the Drama Book Shop was deeply moving.

Kris Lundberg, founder of the new Woolfian Shakespeare’s Sister Company, played Woolf. She managed to show the full complexity of Woolf’s character: the grief, the joy, the complex sexuality, mental illness, humor, coyness, sharpness, and wisdom.

Shelley Ray and David McCamish had smaller roles, but other kinds of challenges: without costume changes, each had to portray several characters (Leslie Stephen & Leonard Woolf; Julia Stephen, Vanessa Bell, and Vita Sackville-West). There was a moment at the beginning of the show where Virginia describes her mother as “beautiful, gracious, and afraid” or a similar trio and the slight twitch in her face on the beat of “afraid” was just perfect.

I do fear a little that the show tends to being not adventurous enough, too pious, too honorific.

But it’s deeply moving and very fair. It did avoid all the many, many painful ways that depictions of Woolf seem to go astray and it really moved my students. In all, those are very, very good things.

My Off-Broadway Debut

I am still glowing from yesterday’s wonderful, festive tribute to Virginia Woolf on the occasion of the 127th Anniversary of her birth. Kris Lundberg, the actress and founder of the new Shakespeare’s Sister nonprofit theater company, organized the day, a staged reading of Edna O’Brien’s play, “Virginia.” She wrote to me about the Woolf conference and asked, oh, by the way, did I know a professor who could offer a brief pre-performance talk.

I volunteered with alacrity, half-expecting a “gee, thanks, but we were hoping for a famous and important Woolf scholar.”

But then, what to say? As I said out loud yesterday, I found myself imagining a really dull and dutiful talk. Then, I imagined something better and got really stressed until I remembered that I had just written an essay on Woolf and the common reader. I read that.

The essay was so long in the coming that I’m shocked. Years ago, when my book was about to come out, Joel Whitney invited me to write an essay on Woolf as an essayist, on my book and what inspired me, for Guernica. I accepted right away and then found myself utterly unable to write anything worthy.

And this wasn’t for lack of effort. I wasted my writing group’s time on a couple different failed attempts.

But then, last year, the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain announced a contest in honor of my late acquaintance and mentor, the beloved and dearly missed Julia Briggs: the best essay on the theme of Virginia Woolf and the Common Reader would win a generous sum of 250 pounds! That’s a motivator.

The piece I wrote turned out to be almost entirely about my grandmother. Not nearly as intellectual as I had thought, not formally innovative, not chock full of dazzling insights, not any of the things that might impress a reader at first blush. But, the more I looked at it, the more I thought it was ok as it was.

Actually, it felt great to read it aloud.

I should, by rights, talk less about myself, and tell you something substantive about how wonderful Shelley Ray & David McCamish & Kris Lundberg were in “Virginia.” I’ll have to save that for tomorrow.

Woolf's Play, "Freshwater"

It's a banner year for Woolf in New York. Here is yet *another* Woolfian theater piece upcoming, with a premier on January 25th. I've pasted in information from the press release. This is, they tell me, the first professional production of "Freshwater" in the U.S.
Women's Project and SITI Company present Virginia Woolf's Only Play
Directed by Anne Bogart
Previews Thursday, January 15, at 8:00pm
Opens on Woolf's 128th B'day Sunday, January 25, at 7:00pm
NEW YORK - Women's Project and SITI Company are not afraid of Virginia Woolf or of her only play never seen on a professional stage in New York, the 1923 comedy Freshwater. Freshwater will open on Virginia Woolf's 128th birthday, Sunday, January 25, at 7:00pm after beginning previews Thursday, January 15 (for a run through Sunday, February 15) at Women's Project, 424 West 55th Street.

Women's Project Producing Artistic Director Julie Crosby has wanted to produce Freshwater since first she discovered the comedy a dozen years ago while teaching at Columbia University. Anne Bogart, with whom Dr. Crosby worked on Laurie Anderson’s Songs & Stories from Moby Dick ten years ago, was the first director she approached for this adventurous project. Presented by Women's Project and Anne Bogart's SITI Company, Freshwater is a theatrical escapade set in a Victorian garden on a summer evening. Woolf, who wrote this play for friends and family, creates a deliberately witty and wacky universe peopled with a tribe of artists, friends and lovers in a playful mood. Written in 1923, revised in 1935, Freshwater has never been produced professionally in the United States. "The characters in Freshwater - Julia Cameron, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ellen Terry and the others - had tremendous significance for the Bloomsbury Group, of which Woolf was a founding member," said director Bogart. "In this production, our challenge will be to channel the humor, intelligence, talent and giddiness of the original Bloomsbury group and deliver it to a 2009 audience."

Anne Bogart, one of the most celebrated directors of our time, is the Artistic Director of SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992. A professor at Columbia University, she runs the Graduate Directing Program. Recent works with SITI include Who Do You Think You Are, Radio Macbeth, Hotel Cassiopeia, Intimations for Saxophone, Death and the Ploughman, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, La Dispute, Score, bobrauschenbergamerica, Room, War of the Worlds, Cabin Pressure, War of the Worlds - The Radio Play, Alice’s Adventures, Culture of Desire, Bob, Going, Going, Gone, Small Lives/Big Dreams, The Medium, Noel Coward's Hayfever and Private Lives, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and Charles Mee's Orestes. She is the author of a book of essays entitled A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theater and the co-author with Tina Landau of The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. Her newest book of essays is And Then You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World.

Women's Project in collaboration with SITI Company presents
Virginia Woolf's FRESHWATER
Directed by Anne Bogart
January 15 - February 15, 2009
Visit www.WomensProject.org for details!