Shirley Valentine at The Jungle Theater

Cheryl Willis as Shirley Valentine. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Cheryl Willis is blessed with an easy-going, laid-back charisma.  She quickly takes and holds the stage in Willy Russell‘s solo show Shirley Valentine (at the Jungle Theater, through March 20).  Willis is tall, down to earth, wiry black hair, her frumpy wool shirt nicely counter-balanced by sparkling eyes and an impish grin.  A thick-as-oat-porridge Liverpudlian accent.  As she absentmindedly prepares dinner – chips and eggs, yum – Shirley Bradshaw (neé Valentine) delivers a (seemingly) relaxed monologue.  She has recently discovered Riesling wine, the joys of the clitoris, has run into an old school chum whose wealth, it turns out, derives from work has a highly paid call girl.  More darkly, Shirley has recognized the shrill, talking-to-the-fridge tyranny of her husband, Joe.  Still, she seems to laugh it all off, shaking her head at the droll comedy of it all.

Ah, but something has happened, something quite serious has sparked this interior monologue.  Shirley’s friend Jane has given her a free ticket to Greece.  Bradshaw now wrestles with a Big Question: can she break free of her set-in-concrete identity as a chip-frying housefrau and once again become Shirley Valentine the free spirit, sipping wine and soaking up Aegean sunshine?  Can she tell Joe, her freeloading daughter, indeed, the whole world?  I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I tell you that she goes to Greece and has a series of life-altering experiences.

Bain Boehlke directs with his usual understated aplomb.  I’ve come to really appreciate his subtle pacing and his use of music, the way it quietly reinforces the action. Boehlke also designs, and it’s terrific.  I adored the painting of the deceptively simple set – it’s very nearly worth the price of admission.  The other designers – Kalere Payton (costumes), Barry Browning (lights), Sean Healey (sound) – also do first rate work.

So: a lovely performance, first rate design and direction.  Why didn’t I enjoy this show?

For one thing, for me, one person shows like Shirley Valentine have severe limitations.  Too much is past tense.  We hear about action we would greatly prefer to see (and which we do see in the very good film adaptation).  Shirley is who she is; her marriage, her relationship with her children, her friendships may be altered, but she’s not really going to change.  This creates, as a result, a lack of suspense.

Finally, I find the piece old-fashioned.  Writing in 1988, playwright Russell wants us to root for this brave soul who takes a mere two weeks for herself (and yet can’t bring herself to tell her husband where she’s going).  It doesn’t play, imo, in 2011, when couples work two (or more) jobs and struggle with child-rearing in a sputtering economy.  The travails of stay-at-home 1980s housewives seems quaint and passé.

But certainly there is a lot to admire about Shirley Valentine and the audience at the performance I attended had a truly terrific time.  If you’re on the fence – go.  Ms. Willis will make it worth your while.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

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