Willy Russell's one-woman play Shirley Valentine relies significantly on the casual slinging of a certain level of schmaltz as the title character, a charming and self-effacing 52-year-old Liverpool housewife, rediscovers herself. The abilities of viewers to tolerate that schmaltz usually dictate whether they find the production to be a bemused sitcom or a mini-revelation.
Factor in a terrific performance and capable direction, both of which are to be found in the current production at Live Theatre Workshop, and the play can actually plumb the depths of meaning and cause chills of recognition—not only for Shirley's initial repression, but for her emergence as well.
Lucky for those of us in the audience, Sabian Trout has confidently directed this excellent interpretation, which is equally blessed with a subtle and laser-focused performance by Tucson theater vet Carlisle Ellis. She makes this production (which has been done in Tucson before) a fortuitous opportunity to rediscover the play.
During the first act, Shirley speaks to the wall in her home's cozy kitchen, as if it is her oldest, and perhaps only, confidant. The play's great conceit is that she addresses the wall ("Hiya, Wall"), but it is actually a surrogate for the audience. It's the proverbial fourth wall, but Shirley doesn't break through the wall as much as invite us inside it, into her kitchen, into her life.
She's preparing the evening meal for her husband, a man who is slightly abusive and, just as important, nearly as numb as she is to life's banal cruelties. Waiting for him to return home—at which time he expects tea to be on the table without fail—Shirley prattles on about her now-grown kids, her neighbors, her Joe, her achingly boring life. Of her husband, Shirley says, "I'm not saying he's a bad man; he's just no bleeding good."
Shirley eventually confides that her newly divorced, feminist girlfriend is going to Greece, and she has purchased an additional plane ticket for Shirley. But our heroine could never go; she could never abandon her Joe and the chips and eggs for a fortnight of sea and sand and wine. Could she?
Russell, also the author of such works as Educating Rita, wrote the play in the mid-1980s, with Noreen Kershaw starring in its 1986 premiere in Liverpool. Pauline Collins took over the role for the 1988 West End debut and went on to perform the role in the film version in 1989.
It's safe to say that Shirley Valentine—the play and the character—preceded not only Stella getting her groove back, but also such unexpectedly empowering cultural phenomena as the MILF and the cougar. So in a sense, Shirley's transformation from a dowdy homemaker—who perceives herself on the downhill slide past middle age—into an engaged and vibrantly sexual woman marks something of a pioneering moment. It's plain to see the character is already a hottie even before she blooms; she simply doesn't know it yet, or she has nearly forgotten that she once was that person. Delicious memories of the rebellious high school girl she once was flicker in her mind's eye.
Ellis is in full flower as Shirley. Even before she decides to whisk herself off to Greece, we can see through Ellis that Shirley is on the verge of a life-changing moment. With her fierce blue-gray eyes, confident agility (especially in the kitchen) and obvious physical strength to perform intensely for 90 minutes, she creates a rich characterization that doesn't lack for subtlety.
Her performance blends with the script, the director's careful pacing and the dance-like blocking to achieve a lovely confluence: a person who seems off-handedly real and alive, not simply an actor on a stage.
Ellis brings convincing pathos to Shirley's heartbreaking depictions of life with Joe; even as she nervously considers leaving him, she never stops loving him. But, since this is a solo performance, we also get the treat of seeing Shirley's imitations of the people around her: Joe, her kids when they were little and now, her neighbors, the people she encounters in Greece. And Ellis nails them all, with her body, voice and facial expressions morphing as she takes on the other characters. The delightful thing is that Ellis isn't performing those characters, but is portraying each as Shirley sees them.
This production of what otherwise might be considered a slight play builds emotional resonance. The melancholy that Shirley expresses through Russell's working-class poetry, the nostalgia about her lost youth and the soul-draining drudgery she has come to accept—this is, if I may say so, not a gender-specific expression of ennui. We all can understand Shirley's sense of lost vitality, as well as her rediscovery of what it means to live again.