Out of the kitchen
Mary Bennett and I are talking in Shirley Valentine’s kitchen.
There’s a small, round dining table topped with an olive green tablecloth and a frying pan. Behind the table with its chrome and vinyl chairs, a cheap, mismatched sideboard completes the sketch of shabby domesticity. But off in a corner, there is a straw sun hat resting on a suitcase. That, in shorthand, is the story of Shirley Valentine, a play in which a middle-aged English housewife feels bored, lonely and trapped in a tedious life, so she takes a trip to Greece, where there are sunny beaches and dark, exciting men.
As this kitchen is set in the basement of the Brüka Theatre, I won’t be receiving the “chips ‘n’ eggs” Bennett offers.
Brüka first mounted Shirley Valentine for the 2004-2005 season. Then, as now, Bennett played the title character in this one-woman show. Since the play was well received, periodic Sunday shows and out-of-town shows were added to the normal run. They are now remounting the play, Bennett says, at her insistence.
Bennett describes the play as being “about a person who gets to come through a lot of her angst … kind of like a butterfly, in a way.”
In case you’re put off by her mention of “angst,” it should be stressed that despite addressing themes such as loneliness and marital malaise, Shirley Valentine is actually a comedy.
“I’ve seen a lot of [one-person] shows—and have done one—that can get to be a little bit like victim pieces,” says Bennett. “'Oh poor me’ … That is something we work as writers and players to get past.”
The aim, in other words, is a depiction of Shirley Valentine’s despair and renewal that is generous, funny and moving to audience members regardless of gender.
“It’s not just a ‘woman’s piece,'” says Bennett. “A lot of men have come to the show and gone ’Yeah, I feel that way, too.'”
Of course, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that men have found something to relate to in Shirley Valentine, as it was written by renowned playwright Willy Russell and directed by Brüka’s Scott Beers. Russell periodically has played the lead himself, never making any effort to disguise that he is a man. No one has seemed to mind—Russell’s Web site reports that he won a Best Supporting Actress award for filling in when lead actress Noreen Kershaw became ill. He adapted the play into a multi-actor film in 1988 and also wrote the play and film Educating Rita.
Bennett is no stranger to one-person shows. Besides playing Shirley Valentine, she also created and performed a one-woman show about Dorothy Parker, which she played both at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and for a convention of dentists. But she admits that performing a one-person show is still scary, though she’s quick to draw an analogy between the experience of an actor alone on stage and the experiences of the character she’s playing.
“Part of what gets [Shirley Valentine] to embrace going to Greece or doing anything new is the fact that she realizes how terrified she is and how frightened she is of anything outside of her world,” she says.
“As frightening as it is for her to take this trip—it is a terrifying thing to do a one-person show. At the same time, it’s so incredibly amazing, and it fills your spirit.”
There is no guarantee that watching Shirley Valentine will fill your spirit (though it might), but, at the very least, it will get you out of the kitchen.