Cheryl Willis as Shirley Valentine
Shirley Valentine is a Liverpool housewife who leaves her drab life in search of something more, and finds sunshine and self-confidence in Greece. The one-woman play is on stage at the Jungle Theater through March 20. Thinking your life could use a little warmth and sunshine right now? Check out these reviews…
It’s a simple, appealing, sometimes bromidic tale, and a different and in some ways more difficult acting job than the Jungle’s single-actor, multi-character extravaganzas: Rather than dazzling us with snippets of characters in short-attention-span succession, the actor in “Shirley Valentine” must create a single character with whom we don’t mind spending a couple of hours.
Cheryl Willis is more than up to the task. Like the character, she’s a native of Liverpool, and so she brings an immediate and automatic authenticity to the role — no need to squint through badly conceived accents or tentative presentations of the local idiom here. Working from that place of authenticity — and in tandem with director-designer Bain Boehlke’s leisurely but clear direction — Willis immediately earns the trust of the audience with a no-nonsense characterization that is self-deprecating without being self-pitying.
…That ease is the key to Willis’ lovely and engaging performance. Rather than being dazzled by the performer’s technical proficiency, you’re invited in as if a friend is telling you a story. It’s not showy, but Willis’ performance — and the whole of the Jungle’s “Shirley Valentine” — is as warm and comfortable as a sun-kissed beach.
Who doesn’t want to get away? Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s more, but “Shirley Valentine” makes a persuasive case with us to break out of this dreary rut. Shirley, the Liverpool housewife of Willy Russell’s one-woman play, runs off to holiday in Greece, but it’s more than Mediterranean sun that she’s after. She wants a new contract with life.
…Russell was in the midst of the self-actualization game when he wrote “Shirley Valentine” in the mid-1980s. Many of those tenets — if you can call them that — ring as clichés now, but Russell still manages an eloquent argument. And actor Cheryl Willis, directed by Bain Boehlke, gives a performance at the Jungle Theater that finds the germ of truth in Russell’s work.
…Russell’s play isn’t the deepest experience you’ll ever have at the theater. To paraphrase Stewart Smalley, Shirley is good enough, smart enough and doggone it, she deserves to escape. But Willis’s performance helps us get beneath the banality and see the metaphor: We don’t necessarily need to run away; we just need to find more life in our own lives.
There. I feel much better now.
The thing that saves Shirley Valentine from being completely self-indulgent is that Shirley is smart enough to understand her place in the world. Yes, she is the center of her own personal story, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is required to kiss her butt and make sure all her wishes come true. Other people have lives, other people have wishes. Everyone is the center of their own story. No one else is required to play along with you, unless it suits them. At the same time Shirley finally understands that she’s not born to always play second fiddle to the needs of her husband and children, that awareness includes an understanding that no one else is required to put her needs above their own. Shirley makes her own escape, and others are welcome to come along for the ride.
The combination of Bain Boelke’s direction (and vibrant set design in a bright pink frame), Russell’s script, and Willis’ performance is almost effortless enough to make you forget just how hard it is to do what they’re doing. One-person shows can be deadly dull. The writer has to have a gift for shaping a story, and the actor and director need to have a gift for telling it in an engaging and varied way. Plus, the actor in particular has no safety net, no fellow actors to pitch in and help out if the thread of the script gets lost. If the actor in a one-person show messes up on their lines, they’re screwed. It takes a certain kind of bravery (or foolishness) to tackle a task like that. Everyone associated with this Jungle production throws themselves into the task with all they’ve got.
Is Shirley Valentine life-altering? No, but I don’t think it means to be. Life-affirming? Certainly. It’s good to be reminded every now and again not to let your life slip by you without savoring it. Some of us need a reminder more than others. For all those folks, it’s a good thing Shirley Valentine is out there. After all, Shirley isn’t just talking to the wall, she’s talking to all of us, in the audience. The question behind the play is always: Why is she telling us this story, and why now? After we’ve heard Shirley’s story, what are we going to do about it?
So have you seen the show? If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.