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'Shirley Valentine' explores life's ups, downs

When the lights come up at Oregon Stage Works, we find ourselves in a bright yellow kitchen. A piano lightly intones the Beatles' song "Blackbird." We're in present-day Liverpool, and 52-year-old Shirley Valentine Bradshaw is about to prepare dinner for her husband as she has every night for years. For decades. Possibly even centuries, judging by the tedium of it all. Shirley is trapped in a dead-end marriage. "It stopped being good," she tells the kitchen wall, who is the only one she can confide in.

This is the world of "Shirley Valentine," a brilliant piece of theater written as a one-woman show by Willy Russell who also wrote "Educating Rita." Russell has an uncanny understanding of the interior landscape of women's souls. And he has been fortunate over the years to have a cadre of gifted women portraying the likes of Rita and Shirley.

We in Southern Oregon are equally fortunate that we have Portland-based Helena de Crespo to bring Shirley Valentine to life at Oregon Stage Works in Ashland, where the show opened Friday.

To do the play justice, you can't act like you're Shirley Valentine, you have to be her. And in this, de Crespo is a master. The play unfolds as a monologue by Shirley. On opening night a number of actors were in the audience and in the wings taking in de Crespo's every nuanced phrase and gesture. She would deliver a one-liner and punctuate it with a sip of her glass of wine while we all howled with delight. And the next moment, without missing a beat, she'd have herself — and the audience — in tears as she tried to puzzle out what happened to her life.

That's the beauty of this little gem of a play. As Producing Artistic Director Peter Alzado put it in his remarks before the show, actors and playwright endeavor "to say something about what it means to be alive — to find connection — to search for meaning."

"Shirley Valentine" is most definitely a comedy and Russell's comic touch is evident throughout the play. But so is his sense of compassion for the human condition. He cares about the people he has created and gives them moments of profundity born of "the examined life" without ever becoming maudlin.

Here again is where de Crespo shines. She takes Shirley on a journey of self-discovery and invites us along for the ride with all its highs and lows. Her timing is impeccable and her facial expressions, hand gestures and postures invite us inside the person who used to be Shirley Valentine.

When Shirley meets an old classmate from school years later, the classmate studies her incredulously and asks, "Didn't you used to be Shirley Valentine?" It is a poignant question and strikes at the heart of the play. Where does an unused life go?

Then, unexpectedly, Shirley's friend Jane wins an all-expenses-paid vacation to Greece for two and invites Shirley to go with her. Can she actually manage to get out from under her husband, her two grown children, her stifling life?

"I've been talking to the wall for more years than I can remember," Shirley says to herself. "I don't know the language in the land beyond the wall."

It's not just Greek that she can't translate, it's the vocabulary of a person who is engaged in life that she can't understand. But Shirley manages to muster up her courage from a place deep inside herself and sets off with Jane for Greece and the adventure of "not knowing for the first time in years what my day would hold."

Brian Wallace and Rowdy Yates built the convincing interior of Shirley's yellow kitchen and the equally convincing exterior of a beach somewhere on the coast of Greece.

De Crespo trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and has performed all over the world in theater, television and film. She received the Ondra award for her contribution to Latin American theater and has won multiple awards in the United Kingdom for her work. She was last seen at OSW in Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads."

"Shirley Valentine" was directed by Don Horn with additional staging by Alzado. Once in a while they have Shirley walking somewhat aimlessly about in her kitchen and occasionally sending her comments to the wall a little too off-handedly. But these are minor moments in a performance that has the audience in the palm of its hand right at the top of the show and keeps it there for the whole evening.

Reach Arts and Entertainment Editor Richard Moeschl at 776-4486, or e-mail rmoeschl@mailtribune.com.