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Arts & Culture

“Shirley Valentine” a 35-Year old funny but serious play. Still funny, but sadly still relevant

Corinna May in Berkshire Theatre Group's "Shirley Valentine."
Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
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Corinna May in Berkshire Theatre Group's "Shirley Valentine."

With the exception of the Beatles, “Shirley Valentine” is one of the best things to come out of Liverpool.

The one-woman show was first produced there in 1986, some 20 years after the most influential rock group ever made its first appearance in the same city. The two have virtually nothing in common, except an appeal that transcends a simple description. You have to experience them to fully get the magic.

Fortunately, in the case of “Shirley Valentine,” area audiences have until October 24 to see a marvelous production at Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA Corinna May’s performance is human, touching and illuminating as a woman who, in her forties, realizes she is living an unsatisfied and unfulfilled life. Worse, the Liverpool housewife doesn’t know how to change it.

Except she does. She just doesn’t know if she has the courage to actually walk away from an unhappy relationship.

When a girlfriend offers her a free two-week vacation to be her companion in Greece, she wants to accept the offer. But her process of deciding whether or not to go underscores the theme of the play – which is that the fear of the unknown is more terrifying than continuing to live a dreary life.

Happily, as well as being insightful, “Shirley Valentine” is also a very funny play. The work, written by Willy Russell, is not a tragic story. There is no conscious or deliberate abuse in her marriage. Her grown children are self-absorbed, but not monsters and her dull life is sad but not brutal. The tragedy is that a play written 35 years ago is as relevant now as it was then.

This is not a play about self-pity. It’s gratifying that Shirley takes full ownership of her situation. This permits her to tell her story without assuming the role of victim or painting the husband she no longer loves as a bad man. They have drifted so far apart they no longer know each other. Worse, neither person no longer knows themself.

The difference is Shirley has the gift of self-awareness, and the courage to change. And this makes the play a joyful, satisfying and even an inspiring experience.

Corinna May is an ideal Shirley. Of course she acts a role, but in truth she becomes a story teller. In the first act we learn about who she was as Shirley Valentine. A tough teenager with an innate intelligence that was crushed by adults preparing her for a role of subservience.

May recounts her youth with a sensitivity that never delves into deep regret. Instead it reveals how an individual’s self-image depends on love and encouragement.

We also meet her friends and learn that impressions without understanding can be misleading. Not one of the other women she introduces us to are what she assumed. Some disappoint; some encourage. The commonality is that in their own way the glamorous lives of others can be equally as empty as is Shirley’s.

On the topic of glamour, it is an interesting choice to cast an attractive woman like May in the role. Often there is the tendency to show the woman to be as physically frumpy as she exists in her own mind. Showing Shirley as physically appealing makes the point that attractive women also suffer neglectful marriages.

Yes, in the second act when we meet Shirley in Greece, there’s a touch more make-up, a vivacious hair style and bright clothing choices. But being a terrific actress, May captures Shirley’s new-found self-confidence more internally than physically.

The change is so palpable we understand Shirley’s alteration is mature, wise and positive. And though the play’s ending is without definitive resolution, there is no doubt Shirley Valentine is never going to backslide.

It’s played on a terrific set by Randall Parker, which in the first act features a cute, functioning kitchen. The second act is a bare set made idyllic through a lush projection. Costumes by Elivia Bovenzi Blitz are ideally in synch with Shirley’s mental state throughout the production.

Director Eric Hill leaves no fingerprints on the performance, but his contributions are intuited throughout. It’s becomes obvious obvious when Shirley cooks eggs and chips for her husband. The real time experience is choreographed perfectly, and its skillful inclusion makes it even more important when the meal becomes the straw that breaks the back of the marriage.

It’s impossible to conceive of a theatergoer not having seen a production “Shirley Valentine”. However, this Berkshire Theatre Group makes it as fresh and invigorating as once again listening to your favorite Beatles recording.

“Shirley Valentine” plays at the Unicorn Theatre of Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA. through October 24. For tickets and schedule information go berkshiretheatregroup.com or call 413-997-4444.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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