Shirley Valentineby Willy Russell. Directed by John Hadden.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"At least a nine on the Richter scale."
Shirley as played by Christine Decker in Scene One; photo: John Sutton
The actress Christine Decker and her director John Hadden have climbed up on to the sturdy broad-stroke-shoulders of playwright Willy Russell to bring out of the tired, angry Liverpool wife that is Shirley Valentine, title character of a 1986 comedy, what is literally the ugly duckling / swan transformation of the season. Decker has played men, women and children this past year on the varied stage surfaces at Hubbard Hall. In this play she starts out as the bored, irascible, comically infuriated housewife of forty years whose children disappoint, whose husband disappoints, whose friends and neighbors disappoint - if you don’t include the high school snob turned high-class hooker - to the point where she could easily burst a blood vessel from the frustration of dealing with all of this disappointment.
When her man-hating, straight, women’s libber friend Jane buys her a ticket to Greece so that Shirley can accompany her and be her unpaid companion, Shirley decides to go. This decision is transformative, much to her own surprise. Shirley Bradshaw, Mrs. Bradshaw to you, reconnects with her youthful self, her Shirley Valentine, and with the wisdom of her ages, and the vigor of her teen years she chooses quality over quantity. This is the basic story, and not one that most people who enjoy a good play don’t already know. Thanks to the remarkable Pauline Collins whose immortal stage personality transformed well into the badly flawed film version co-starring Tom Conti, you can watch Shirley Valentine any day or night of the week.
But the playwright wrote this as a one-woman, three monologue play. The actress plays it all. She has no help from another actor and this is what is meant in the theater by a "tour-de-force." Russell is an excellent writer and this, due to the dynamic sensibility of Shirley in the hands of a brilliant interpreter, is very clear in both the play and in this production. Decker has found hidden depths of sullen emotion, deeper hints of an immortality-quest in the writing than I have seen before. With the aid of John Hadden the Shirley Valentine of upstate New York is a finer character than even Collins contributed to theater history.
Hadden’s meticulous and clinical pre-play exposition of a dismayed housewife - played in the fifteen minutes prior to actual curtain time so don’t be late and miss it - sets up Shirley brilliantly. He uses the kitchen of the semi-detached house in Liverpool, England in the late 1980s as the frame for a woman who is running on a depressing auto-pilot treadmill. Before she speaks or makes a written gesture, this Shirley is familiar to us. This Mrs. Bradshaw is not a woman who smiles easily. She is not a woman who shares with anything that can return the favor. When she speaks to her only confidante, the kitchen wall, she does so with an alarming reality that lets us question her sanity before we can begin to understand who and why and what she really is.
When Hadden reintroduces Shirley to us in Act Two, he has given her back the sense of humor she had never lost, as we discover in her two lengthy discourses with her wall, but he allows her to display it in ways she has never even dreamed of in the past. He and Decker bring her smile back to that expressive face and the beauty displayed, though unchanged in any physical ways, within that smile is glorious.
Decker and Hadden make a wonderful team. Judging by this show they both contribute to the complete interpretation and presentation and Decker has so much inner confidence and resilience that not the dropping of a cane at her feet by an audience member opening night nor the slamming of something unidentified against the metal framework of the bleachers seating could even get an eyelash-flap out of her. For Shirley Valentine peeling potatoes in her kitchen or sitting on the Greek equivalent of her wall at home there is no outside world to interfere with her transportation of her soul from one disquieting world to another.
You are guaranteed laughs and guffaws and snickers in this superb production of this delectable play. You are promised the opportunity to flush with embarrassed satisfaction as the topic and the world of the clitoris is investigated. You cannot avoid the catharsis or the lump in the throat and the tear in the corner of the eye. Everything Willy Russell could hope for is present and accounted for in Cambridge, NY. An almost sold-out opening night didn’t hurt either for as obviously absorbed into her work as Christine Decker can be she still plays well with us, her wall in her Shirley’s kitchen reacting to what she imagines the wall is thinking and probably saying to her in some way.
Shirley’s imagination is better than ours and Decker allows us to see it at work. It doesn’t get much finer than that, believe me.
Progress: Shirley as played by Christine Decker in Scene Two; photo: John Sutton
Finale: Shirley as played by Christine Decker in Act Two; photo: John Sutton
Shirley Valentine runs through May 12 at Hubbard Hall, located at 25 E. Main Street in Cambridge, NY. For information and tickets go to their website at www.hubbardhall.org or call 518-677-2495.