Willy Russell, the playwright, is a man of many talents who began his extraordinary career path as a hairdresser when he left school in Whiston (near Liverpool, Shirley's hometown) on his mother's advice. He had only done one O-level, in English. During the six years he spent doing hair, he was "an indifferent dresser of hair, but a 'good listener.'" His father had done shift work in the factories, like many men after the war, so Willy as an only child spent a lot of time listening and absorbing the perspectives of the women around him. Shirley Valentine, a comedy/monodrama, was seeded from those times.
We meet Shirley in her drab kitchen, peeling spuds for her husband's tea. He's going to be getting egg and chips, not the usual Thursday night mince, and she's already anticipating trouble at this change. Change is the soul and engine of the play. It's fomenting in Shirley, inchoate, trying to find form as she explores her memories, as she slices away the black spots on the potatoes. She's poured herself a glass of wine to dull the drudgery of this daily chore. The dailiness and predictability of her life aren't comfortable any more. She knows she's lost her edge: "I can't remember the moment it (her marriage) stopped being good If you described me to me, I'd think you were telling me a joke." But how to get it back? The kitchen was once a bright yellow, painted by Shirley and her husband in the early, hopeful days of their marriage, and now it's faded. Shirley is the only light in it, the candle in her own darkness. Her freshly done hair gleams and moves, the one luxury housewives in the bleak north of England refuse to give up. Christine Decker makes every gesture count as she moves around Shirley's kitchen, peeling and slicing the spuds, breaking the eggs into the pan with a knife that's lost its edge as well, scraping away at the frying pan with a spatula like she's scraping away at her own carapace of loss, regret and boredom. She includes the wall in her stream of consciousness, talking to it because it's always there. It never answers her back with habitual, cruel dismissal.
Shirley's questions are enough to invoke change, which comes to her in the form of an all-expenses-paid trip to Greece that her friend Jane has won and invites her to go along on. When Shirley appears on stage and announces "I'm going!", her face is as radiant as the Greek sun she's headed for, and the audience applauds and murmurs relieved affirmations. Shirley is ready two hours ahead of time, and does the painful back-and-forth waffle: should she go, should she stay, what will or won't happen. Even though I had seen both the play and the film before, my stomach knotted and my breath got shallow with Shirley's struggle. This is one of the moments in this production where the particular bond that grows between actor and director in a one-person play reveals its miracle. Shirley's struggle is all of our struggles with change: "We don't do what we want to do we do what we have to do, and pretend it's what we want to do." Ring any bells? A few of mine were tolling.
Once Shirley gets on the plane to Greece, one opportunity after another presents itself to her, and rebirth sails in " jumping into water as deep as forever." Scott Renzoni (Stage Manager, Dramaturge, Sound Design) is a magical perpetual motion machine; I turned to say something to my friend, and when I looked back at the stage it had transformed from that bleak Liverpool kitchen to a sun-soaked beach in Greece, Shirley waltzing around it tanned and glowing, feisty and formidable, creating her life and marveling at each moment. As always, Hubbard Hall does so much with very little. The multi-talented troupe seems to always be in a creative mind meld that can transform on a breath like Shirley saying "Yes!" to life! Ken Lorenz's sets transport the audience and change the mood with object and placement choices that tell their own stories and lead our imaginations. When I saw the two potholders printed with sunflowers hanging over the kitchen counter, I imagined Shirley buying them on a dark, damp day for a bit of cheer-up at the local Marks and Sparks, her subconscious already paving the way for her new life. The backdrop of the sky and the lighting will open your eyes wider to get the Mediterranean sunshine and vitamin D! You'll sway to the music and be lulled by the swish of the waves, and some of the song lyrics will tweak you at the same time as you remember the times when change was just breathed in, an easy boon of being young.
John Hadden wrote in his Director's Note about his own epiphanies during his time with Shirley Valentine, " how men and women talk with each other, how our lives depend on it." When do we lose sight of that in all of our long-term relationships? Christine Decker's 30 years of acting experience has gifted her with being able to hold her audience and bond with them in layer after layer of laughter, tears, irrepressible humor, and courage. She carries a through line of energy in Shirley's journey that never wavers.
When I left Hubbard Hall after the play, what I wanted to do was be able to follow the other members of the audience home, hear what they said, see what they did, inhabit their dreams. I hope we all fall back "in love with the idea of livin'!" That's life's perpetual "Valentine" to us.
It's always time for a change, so throw in your lot with Shirley Valentine on May 3 and 4 at 8 p.m., May 5 at 2 p.m., May 10 and 11 at 8 p.m., May 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call the box office at 518-677-2495, or purchase tickets online at www.hubbardhall.org.