Williamston’s ‘Valentine’ expresses a love of life
Is it a crime to live a little life if that is what everyone expects of you?
At 46, Shirley Valentine is wondering whether there is life outside the confines of her kitchen and companions with more to say than the wall who has been listening to her for years. In the more than capable hands of Julia Glander on the Williamston Theatre stage, Shirley is able to explore her dilemma and take the audience on her journey.
“Shirley Valentine” presents a lot of challenges to an actor. Glander must hold the attention of the audience for two hours while alone on the stage, and she does so with good humor and finesse. She tells Shirley’s story with a vulnerability that is always sympathetic and never makes the middle-aged housewife look pathetic or dull.
It is this genuine empathy that makes the one-woman show so effective. Glander is able to express exquisitely how Shirley has come to be in the place where she is: stuck and living life at the half-empty mark. Shirley has done everything that was expected of her. She fell in love and had a relationship that was passionate and playful. But then life intervened and things slowed down until only routine and conventions were left. She became wife and mother and lost herself in the process.
Even as Shirley makes a simple meal in a cramped kitchen, Glander shows us there is more to Shirley than a bored housewife. She does this with her animated movement, the delight she takes in her memories, and the mischievous manner in which she shares her secret moments in the present where she breaks with habit and defies expectations.
Perhaps even more important is the relationship Glander establishes with the audience. She may claim she is talking to the wall, but she is really charming and seducing the people in the seats beyond the invisible wall, letting them see the woman who was longing to escape.
Director Lynn Lammers makes excellent use of the Williamston space, starting with the very cramped, claustrophobic kitchen in the first act and then providing a physical change to help the audience travel with Shirley in the second act. The tight space demands a blocking that can keep the energy high with restricted movement. Lammers also tightly focuses all aspects of the production on telling the story and not distracting with extraneous effects.
Daniel Walker’s scenic design is an excellent example of the set serving the story, with a fully functioning kitchen filled with Bruce Bennett’s 1980s kitchen props to underscore the condition of Shirley’s life. Walker then creates a wonderful contrast in the second act, with the set extending to the far walls of the audience space.
It is the commitment on the part of the artistic and technical staff that lets what really matters come out in this comedy: the story itself. For while Glander excels at comedic acting, the laughter all has a purpose. It is an invitation to the audience, encouraging them to laugh so that like Shirley, they can find a way to live life more fully, more passionately, and in a madcap pursuit of whatever dreams makes them the unique individuals they are.
To die before death, to suppress the joyful playfulness that hides in the soul, those are what Shirley Valentine tells us are the crimes against God and against a life that can be so much more than what we allow it to be.