Mrs. Joe Bradshaw – née Shirley Valentine – is talking to the wall in her working-class Liverpool kitchen. She’s bored, lonely, dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Her kids are grown and gone, and her husband – well, she might as well be talking to the wall.
So she chats with that fourth wall, and through it with us, downing a few glasses of white wine while cooking a dinner of egg and chips for her husband, who expects it the minute he comes through the door. (She really does cook it, and by intermission the theater is suffused with the warm smell of fried food.) And we come to see that Shirley has been made, by school, by marriage, by society’s expectations, “to live this little life, when inside me there was so much more. But it had all gone unused.”
Her friend Jane, a free-spirited self-described feminist and “the only one who keeps me sane,” has invited her on a two-week holiday on a Greek island. “I’d like to drink a glass of wine in a country where the grape is grown,” Shirley muses.
Even if you haven’t seen Shirley Valentine – either Willy Russell’s one-woman play or the 1989 movie adaptation, in which the characters Shirley limns for us in her monologue to the wall are represented on screen – it’s no spoiler to reveal that she goes. Of course she goes – that’s the whole point of the piece. It’s even illustrated on the program cover. (Randall Parsons’ two sets are defined by big backdrops, first of urban row houses, then of deep blue ocean.)
Greece is where she rediscovers the Shirley Valentine who “disappeared” into marriage and motherhood. But it’s the first-act doubts and insecurities, repeatedly threatening to ground that flight, on which the play turns. Act Two endorses her audacious choice, with a couple of unanticipated twists.
In Eric Hill’s convivial production, playing through October 24th on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn stage in Stockbridge, area favorite Corinna May commands the stage for two delightful hours. Her accent hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of Liverpool, capturing the “Scouse” lilt but few of the vowels. While Shirley’s self-deprecating humor is there, in this performance it’s the eyes that say it all.
In the early scenes they’re pooled with melancholy and longing, then indecision, and finally nervous resolve. Then, looking out at the Adriatic Sea from a beachside taverna, they take on a delicious faraway look – far away from her Liverpool kitchen, for sure; but that dreamy gaze also tells of pleasures beyond the local wine.
Like Russell’s Educating Rita, about another working-class Liverpudlian striving for a bigger life, Shirley Valentine is a bit dated. The heady rush of second-wave feminism is now long past, as is the age of the stay-at-home housewife. But at this particular moment, the play’s escape fantasy seems quite timely. Masked, vaxxed, and venturing cautiously back into live theater, we can bask in that vision of reckless, guiltless freedom.
Photos by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
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