One-person shows are generally treated as testing-grounds and showcases for actors, and often suffer as a result. Flamboyant, showboat performances are fun but can overshadow the text of a play and leave audiences saying "wasn’t she WONDERFUL" without remembering whether there was a story told or theme illuminated during the entire evening. Director Zenon Kruszelnicki and actor Marianne Matthews seemed determined not to fall into this trap, and delivered an admirably restrained and surprisingly poignant rendition of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine.
The story of a downtrodden Liverpool housewife who no longer likes -- or even recognizes-- herself and her husband, Shirley Valentine explores the ways in which life’s myriad disappointments can grind a person down to a sour shadow of the self they once imagined. Ostensibly a fairly broad comedy, the play is driven by a probing seriousness and celebrates the possibility that one’s self-imposed, quotidian prisons might be escaped even after 20 years of marriage.
The opening scene delivered fewer big laughs than might have been expected, opting instead for a steady stream of more modest chuckles. This tactic allowed for the audience to develop a real affection for the character and be drawn into her in a more organic fashion. By the time Shirley made the climactic decision to leave for Greece without telling her husband, the audience seemed to be applauding not the actor so much as the character. Matthews -- as Shirley -- had won them over, and this was clearly the best hope for Shirley.
The only notable negative was the inconsistent dialect. Press materials indicated an intentional compromise, citing the difficulty American audiences might have understanding a true working-class Liverpool accent (think Ozzy Osbourne). Unfortunately, the character’s phonics seemed to shift from paragraph to paragraph and it became clear that this was probably not so much a choice as an error.
Designers Joyce Liao (lights) and Pavlo Bosy (sets and costumes) did an admirable job with limited resources, suggesting two drastically different locations with a few clear choices (though, strangely, the netting and spray-bottle moisture of the second act were more convincing during intermission than under full light.) Director and actor kept the pace light and quick without descending into frantic and wacky, allowing the play’s more tender moments to ring true.
The play’s loveliest motif is the idea that Shirley has become weighed down and transformed by all the "unused life" she has stored up inside of her. When Matthews’s Shirley found an outlet for this burden, the release was tangible. In a city too often weighed down by burdens of its own, this newfound lightness was welcome.
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Copyright 2003 Frank Episale