A Bravura Performance
by David A. Rosenberg
Shirley Valentine is 52. At that age, she says, “you start to believe that the only good things are things in the past. I must have been an early developer. I felt like that at 25."
Long Wharf’s production of Willy Russell’s funny 1988 “Shirley Valentine” stars Judith Ivey in a bravura performance as the eponymous heroine. Taking place both in dank Liverpool and sunny Greece, the play and its star delineate between those extremes, not by being heavily dour then suddenly chipper, but by putting disappointments and regrets into perspective.
Shirley, bless her, is chipper all the time, even when bemoaning her husband’s demands (like being served food the moment he returns from work) and his lack of affection. “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it?” she says. “There’s no solution.”
No wonder our Shirley chucks home and stove for a vacation on the island of Corfu with a female friend. No wonder she has a fling with a smooth roué. While it’s true that talking to the wall in her kitchen is not much different from talking to a rock on a Grecian beach, at least the beach is warm.
Shirley spews out strings of stories, all the while conjuring up a host of characters in this solo work. There’s hubby, of course, and the stud she meets in Greece. There are her friends, one her neglectful traveling companion, the other her envious next-door neighbor. There’s her son Brian who gave new meaning to the story of Joseph and Mary in his school’s Nativity pageant. (Not taking the proprietor’s word that there really was no room in the inn, Brian socked him one.)
Then there are all those meals, those connubial obligations, those nagging questions. “Who turned me into this?” she asks. “I don’t want this. Why do you get all this life when it can't be used? Why do you get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if they can't ever be used?"
Even though the evening is rather out of date in its sexual politics and somewhat repetitious, you root for Shirley. Even unfettered in Greece, she asks questions similar to what she asked herself in Liverpool, like “Why is it there’s all this unused life?” But she’s learned that she can now do what she wants to do, not what she has to do.
Thanks to Frank Alberino’s set – claustrophobic in Act One, expansive in Act Two – to Rui Rita’s distinctive lighting and Martin Pakledinaz’s domestic-to-swimwear costumes, Ivey is given full support. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis is also worth a mention, although some of the dialogue is garbled.
As to Ivey herself, under Gordon Edelstein’s direction, she’s vivacious and amusing, zinging jokes while whipping up a tasty-smelling dish of eggs and chips. If she has a tendency to flirt with the audience, she does it with a twinkle. Avoiding sentimentality, Ivey makes this Scouser (slang for a native Liverpudlian) a woman with whom spending a couple of hours is as pleasant as pleasant can be.