Live Theatre Workshop produced Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine in the summer of 2009. It was so popular that the company has revived the one-woman show for a full run, bringing back Carlisle Ellis in the title role.
At first blush, Shirley Valentine might seem like more of a hard sell than a crowd-pleaser. Russell's play (written and first produced in the 1980s) features a bored, middle-age British woman, Shirley, talking to her closest confidante, the wall (in other words, the audience) about her life. Puttering about her kitchen, Shirley debates the one big conflict that seems to have arisen in her life: whether to go on a trip to Greece.
Shirley's speech is marked by lower-middle-class British expressions (she makes "chips and egg" for her husband's "tea"), and her life has been, by her own estimation, disappointing. ("Marriage is like the Middle East, isn't it?" Shirley posits. "There's no solution.") If you're unfamiliar with the play, you might wonder how the ramblings of a Manchester housewife are going to keep a contemporary American audience's attention for an entire evening.
Yet from the beginning, Russell's one-woman play has been a hit. The play ran on the West End in London and then won a 1989 Tony after moving to Broadway. Also in 1989, it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. And, as the success of LTW's productions attest, the play continues to be beloved.
Clearly, much depends on who is chosen as the play's sole actor. Ellis earned raves for her previous turn in the role, and she doesn't disappoint the second time around.
Under director Sabian Trout's sharp eye, Ellis creates not only the character of Shirley, but also the people in her life. When Shirley speaks about her husband, or her daughter, or her nosy neighbor, Ellis adopts a whole new voice and persona, physically moving back and forth to enact the conversation. As a result, the play feels peopled with a variety of characters; it's easy to forget that you never actually meet Shirley's husband, Joe, or her best friend, Jane, in the flesh.
Though Ellis' accent wobbles occasionally, she convincingly catches the rhythms of British speech. She also manages to find the universality in Shirley's salty observations and laments. Despite the thick layer of British-isms and British pop-cultural references in the script (Shirley talks about making a Horlicks drink for her daughter, and about watching a commercial for Milk Tray chocolates), the humor and warmth of the character come across unimpeded.
LTW's resident designers, Richard and Amanda Gremel, have once again created a set so pretty that you will wish you could move in permanently. In Act 1, Shirley cooks in a teal-and-white kitchen, opening and closing beautiful, realistic-looking cupboards and kitchen appliances. In fact, a prominent theme of the play is how stifled Shirley feels in her life; perhaps the kitchen should have been made less-appealing. I kept getting distracted from sympathy for Shirley's plight by full-bore envy of her kitchen counter space.
In Act 2, Shirley's transplantation to Greece is achieved by simply covering the set discreetly in white sheets. (I would feel bad about spoiling this plot point about the Greek trip—if it weren't spoiled in the program.)
Costume- and props-designer Linda Trout does a similarly subtle and effective job of transforming Shirley in Act 2 by loosening Ellis' hair, and dressing her in sunglasses and tighter-fitting, brighter-colored clothing. The Shirley of Act 2 has literally and metaphorically "let her hair down" in Greece.
However, this total life transformation is hard to buy. The sunny European vacation as a means of sexual and spiritual awakening is a well-worn cliché, and the fact that Russell has Shirley reflect on what a cliché it is doesn't let the play entirely off the hook.
Although I didn't totally swallow the play's feel-good ending, I didn't worry about it too much, either. The second act is much shorter than the first, and feels more like a coda to the longer and more-complex first act, in which Shirley frets about whether to take the vacation at all.
In a sense, it doesn't really matter what happens to Shirley in Greece. What matters is that she makes a decision to do something for herself—to grab a piece of life while she can.
"Because we don't do what we want to do, do we?" Shirley says. "We do what we have to do, and pretend that it's what we want to do."
Shirley Valentine shows us a woman finally deciding to do something she wants to do, and one can't help but be cheered by this quietly revolutionary act. Add Ellis' charismatic performance and Trout's efficient direction, and an evening of listening to a bored British housewife speeds delightfully by.