If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
JUDITH IVEY RETURNS TO LONG WHARF AS “SHIRLEY VALENTINE”
Actress Judith Ivey, who moved mountains in an otherwise wrong-headed revival of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Long Wharf Theatre two seasons ago, is seen to far better advantage in the theatre’s current production of Willy Russell’s “Shirley Valentine”. The English comedy is a perfect fit for the actress who is making friends nightly on the theatre’s intimate Stage II. This is a cheerful holiday diversion in New Haven.
“Shirley Valentine” was a hit for Willy Russell and for English actress Pauline Collins who created the role in the early 1980s winning awards and the movie role along the way. The one-woman show is no walk in the park. In Act One alone, Shirley is required to chat, drink wine, peel potatoes and make a lunch of fried eggs and chips for her spouse who is due at any moment. In a running monologue that is often funny, rueful and poignant, we learn that Shirley is clearly in mid-life crisis mode. Her children are gone, her husband might as well be and her life has stalled. Through the urgings of her “feminist” best friend, Jane, she is considering a two-week jaunt to a Greek island. There is no doubt that Shirley will eventually take this trip and one of best things about the Long Wharf production is set designer Frank Albertino’s miraculous transformation from Shirley’s dreary but fully equipped Liverpool kitchen to a glorious stretch of beach in Greece.
It has to be noted, however, that the years really haven’t been kind to “Shirley Valentine”. By now, we’ve read Gail Sheehy’s “Passages” and seen “An Unmarried Woman” and countless others of the same genre and the woman-finding-herself dilemma doesn’t quite carry the urgency it used to. It doesn’t mean that the message of self-fulfillment isn’t still a timely one, but it does seem an overly familiar one at this point and Russell’s pat answers and easy bromides only add to the datedness. (A stronger play of his, “Educating Rita”, has virtually the same themes and might be worth reviving down the road.)
Still, Judith Ivy gives the role her all and with her pitch-perfect Liverpudlian accent, frumpy frocks (nicely provided by Martin Pakledinaz) and endless good cheer, she is a woman and a character we want to embrace and learn more about. If she tends, at times, a tad over-eager to please, the joy she shares with the audience is still all-encompassing. A play like “Shirley Valentine” makes us realize how few good vehicles are around these days for “woman of a certain age”. Seeing Ms. Ivey in the cozy Stage II setting at Long Wharf is a tonic. Join her.
“Shirley Valentine” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through January 2nd. For further information and ticket reservations call 203.787.4284 or visit online at www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers on 12.22.10