“Shirley Valentine” Lives It Up!
“Shirley Valentine” is another one person show, this one about a dissatisfied, middle-aged, Liverpudlian housewife but this 1986 comedy by Willy Russell (“Blood Brothers,” “Educating Rita”) may just have the power and grace to speak most directly to your heart.
We are greeted at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Stage by a terrific bright, yellow and airy kitchen (superlative set design by Randall Parsons) with no walls, in front of a floor to ceiling cyclorama of Liverpool row houses. My partner overheard a patron’s comment on how the kitchen didn’t look very British. How appropriate for an evening when a woman, alone, will investigate and suffer how others perceive her. The woman who appears magically center stage after a blink of a blackout is Shirley Valentine played in an astonishing performance by BTG favorite Corinna May.
We join her mid-conversation with her wall on a particularly anxious evening. She’s directly addressing the wall and telling it how she gave up her husband Joe’s steak dinner to the vegan Bloodhound at work. Her man will have to settle for chips and egg for dinner because it was just too worth it to see this dog eat meat for the first time. Shirley’s having a glass of wine and nervously chatting about her grown children who’ve left the house, how she and her school sold herself short and how she has wound up here in such an unsatisfying marriage. “Marriage is like the Middle East, isn’t it? There’s no solution. You jiggle things around a bit, give up a bit here, take a bit there, deal with the flare-ups when they happen. But most of the time you just keep your head down, observe the curfew, and hope that the ceasefire holds.”
Beyond her disappointment with sex (she has a lovely monologue about discovering the clitoris which predates Eve Ensler by a decade), Shirley has a dissociative reaction to her name and who she is, to the point where she breaks down and cries and tells the wall she doesn’t even recognize herself anymore. “If you were to describe me to me, I’d think you were telling me a joke.” Her single friend Jane has bought her a ticket for a fortnight in Greece. Her husband comes home and reacts badly to her dinner of chips and egg, which we watch her prepare onstage in real time, leaving the theater with a greasy, buttery cooking smell. At the beginning of the second scene in the first act, she leaves a note on the kitchen table. “Gone to Greece. Back in two weeks.”
The second act opens with a purring Shirley seated on an Aegean cliff, at a taverna café in sunhat, shades and delightfully colorful leisure pants. Great work by costume designer Elivia Bovenzi Blitz. Her satisfied tilt of the head earns the audience’s approval and applause. She now addresses her monologue to Rock.
Corinna May is no stand-up comic. There are opportunities to mimic voices in Shirley’s life but she takes them easy and natural, never pushing or overselling the abundant humor in the script. She is someone you might pass by on the street or in the shop never imagining the treasures within. Her Shirley is easily relatable and altogether winning with sly asides showing a fierce intelligence and enormous sensitivity. She broke a wine glass early in the first act on the night I attended and she cleaned up the mess, repoured a fresh glass retrieved from the cupboard as easily as she dispatched Joe’s eggs and fried chips at the end of the scene which had been staged adroitly by Eric Hill to coincide with her short, embittered speech on love. It’s a charming, lighthearted performance that can stun and wound you with its deep reservoirs of feeling and intelligence. I am indebted to Ms. May for such a graceful performance.
After a year and a half of enforced solitude, Shirley Valentine’s plight can feel universal although there is no mistaking the feminist power of the piece. After all we’ve been through as a family, an audience and a country, we could do worse than listen to her: “We say we’re fine. An’ we carry on an’ on until we die. An’ most of us die….long before we’re dead. An’ what kills us is the terrible weight of all this unused life that we carry around.”
“Shirley Valentine” is a restorative tonic that will move you, make you laugh and it has the power to set a fire in your soul.