Judith Ivey Gives Heartfelt Performance in “Shirley Valentine” at Long Wharf Theatre

By Amy J. Barry

Shirley Valentine is a play about a middle-aged woman learning to live again—not after a terrible illness or the loss of a loved one or any life-shattering event—but after living too ordinary a life, too small a life, a life of quiet desperation.

Judith Ivey plays that woman, who, despite the life she leads, is far from ordinary. Ivey gave an exemplary performance last season at Long Wharf Theatre as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and returns to the theater, breathing new life into the 20-plus-year-old play, under the keen direction of Gordon Edelstein.

Written by Willy Russell, the one-woman play made its debut in 1988 on England’s West End. It moved quickly to Broadway where it garnered numerous awards, and was adapted for the big screen in 1989.

In Act I—which runs long at more than 80 minutes of the two hour play—we’re introduced to Shirley, who is cooking her husband Joe’s dinner, quite literally, on a real stove in their modest, well-worn Liverpool kitchen.

She is sipping a glass of wine while passive-aggressively preparing “egg and chips,” instead of Joe’s expected Thursday night steak. The unappealing frying smells fill the theater, adding another sense to our experience and emphasizing how unglamorous Shirley’s life has become.

Ivey is instantly inside her character, earnestly recounting little moments and conversations, providing colorful, quirky snapshots of her life in a cockney accent that at times sounds more like an Irish brogue. She engages the audience so easily and comfortably that it almost works against her, making it hard to imagine—as she regularly reminds us—that her character is really alone, talking to the wall.

Shirley’s “feminist friend” Jane —a description that clearly dates the play—has offered her a free ticket to spend a fortnight in the Greek Isles. Shirley is tentative, and upset with herself for being unable to take even a calculated risk. She doesn’t know when or why her marriage “stopped being good,” just that “somewhere along the way, we turned into who we are now.”

But Shirley eventually does take the plunge. Set designer Frank Alberino—with the help of lighting designer Rui Rita, and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz—creates a stark contrast between Act I and Act II. The audience returns from intermission to find Ivey on a gorgeous Mediterranean beach, soaking in the brilliant sunshine. She has cast-off her colorless, buttoned-up shirt and jeans for a sexy, colorful bathing suit.

Shirley informs us that Joe’s reaction to the egg and chips—shoving his plate across the table and all over her—was the tipping point that sent her packing. To complete the fantasy-come-true, Shirley has a fling with Cosmo, who operates the hotel bar, and is both handsome and sensitive. But refreshingly, she makes the decision to stay abroad, not for her Grecian squeeze—he’s already moved onto another hotel guest—but for herself—the Shirley Valentine she used to know and love.

Russell has his finger on the pulse of a woman of a certain age and for the most part, the issues in the play are, unfortunately, timeless—like feeling alone in a marriage that’s lost it’s luster and grown far too predictable, and being everything to everyone, except oneself.

On the other hand, Shirley’s constant references to her age (52) as being old—are annoying to those of us around the same age, and age the play. 1989’s 52 is the new 62, after all. This is somewhat counterbalanced by sound designer Ryan Rumery’s exuberant ‘80s music track between scenes.

All in all, Shirley Valentine is still kicking and Ivey, along with Edelstein, has done an admirable job resuscitating the popular show.


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