By Roz Friedman
Did you ever feel you were talking to a wall? Well, a charming but lonely woman named Shirley Valentine does so in an entertaining and insightful play named for her that takes place in grey England and sunny Greece. Written in the 1980’s by Willy Russell, it starred English actress, Pauline Collins, who won every top award in Britain and on Broadway for her portrayal. It was a huge hit and became a film, as well. The Liverpool playwright is famed for his work about the Beatles, the play and film, Educating Rita, and Blood Brothers, a musical which holds a special place in my heart. Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret production was memorable.
Now, Gordon Edelstein directs this winning production, choosing his favorite actress, Judith Ivey, to play 52 year old Shirley. Ivey, who last starred in Tennessee Williams,’ The Glass Menagerie at Long Wharf, then Off Broadway, and the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., embodies this unhappy soul with sensitivity, vitality and a wonderful twinkle in her eye. Costumed creatively by Martin Pakledinaz, she reaches out to the audience in this two hour with one intermission solo performance bringing them into the experience. If her accent sometime wavers between cockney and southern, it can be forgiven. There is a similarity between them.
We first meet Shirley in Liverpool, in her cramped kitchen, where she is preparing her husband, Joe’s Tea--- that is akin to an early supper. While peeling, slicing and frying potatoes into Chips, she gives us a picture of her life. Married since she was 18, she has two daughters, both grown and out of the house. Her early years were happy, but her dreams of travel have been thwarted by Joe, who wants everything the way it was. She knows he will complain heartily about the Tea, which has only eggs not the meat he expects. Shirley on a heartfelt whim has given that to her vegan friend’s bloodhound. Her husband’s angry response, throwing the plate of food at her, encourages her to accept Jane’s all paid for invitation to go to Greece with her. After much soul-searching, she sneaks out and flees. Deserted by Jane, she meets the caring Costas and has a fling with him. When she decides she can’t go home, her discovery that her lover is already romancing someone else, does not faze her; she has found the true core of herself, and is even ready to welcome her husband to her dream.
From a working kitchen to a beautiful beach by the blue sea and sky, Frank Alberino’s set design lit glowingly by Rui Rita is truly inspiring. In this day and age, there may not be as many women as there were in the 1980’s who aspire to more in their lives and men who are clueless. But I am sure they still exist.
If you can’t get away, Shirley Valentine at Long Wharf is the place to be. Only through January 2!
(This review originally aired on WNFR Fine Arts radio.)