Ricky Graham recently wowed audiences in a stunning performance of Shirley Valentine, a one-woman show produced by Southern Rep at the Contemporary Arts Center. There was not a hint of camp humor or cross-gender jokes in this entertaining monologue, and it didn't even feel like a monologue. It was too full of life.
The play is set in Liverpool, England, where playwright Willy Russell grew up. A spare, tasteful set shows us a lower class kitchen. Shirley, in a short wig and modest outfit, is making eggs and chips for her husband. She talks to us and occasionally to the kitchen walls. Clearly, she is a sort of prisoner. But of what? That question troubles her deeply. The play is often funny, but not at the expense of the lead character, and not because she is played by a man. Shirley has a marvelous sense of humor and makes us laugh at her witticisms and attitudes. The play also is moving because of the aura of despair that has settled on Shirley. It reminds one of Henry David Thoreau's observation, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Shirley drinks white wine as she cooks and ruminates about her life. Her son and daughter have grown up and left home. She is amazed by their obsessions (her son is a street poet) and their slang: "mega-brill," "double-fab." Her husband isn't bad, just no bleeding good! He hates wine, which he calls "a posh way of getting pissed." The play floats along on British working class slang, which is both exotic and delightful.
Ultimately, this wife of many years concludes, "Marriage is like the Middle East — there's no solution." Aside from the perplexing grimness of her life, which has grown imperceptibly over the years, Shirley is troubled by a chance for a brief escape. Her best friend is going to Greece for two weeks and has bought a plane ticket for Shirley.
The drama revolves around the ticket and the invitation to act, to assert herself, to live. Shirley is tormented. Does she have the courage to take a vacation? Does she have the courage to tell her husband? She remembers when she was young and used to jump off roofs, just for the thrill of jumping. Where did that impetuous youngster go? Where did life go? Finally, she admits she's terrified of what's beyond the walls. But she takes that leap and second act reveals where she lands.
The award-winning play features subtle writing, and Graham's performance was spot-on. A tip of the hat goes to director Marieke Gaboury and to Jim Means (scenic design), Cecile Casey Covert (costumes), Brian Peterson (wigs) and James Lanius III (sound and light). —DALT WONK