Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell. Directed by Jenna Ware.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Tina Packer as Shirley Valentine; photo: Kevin Sprague
"I like wine...itís like being kissed by the sun."
Shirley Valentine has a desire that overwhelms her. She wants to be treated with respect by her husband, Joe, a man she knows she must have loved once. She has taken to talking to a wall in her kitchen, getting more respect from that source than from Joe or either of her children. More respect than she gets from her neighbor or even her good friend Jane, a feminist. Jane has offered her an alternative to the daily grind, a two-week vacation on a Greek island. Shirley wants to accept, but fears the consequences.
On stage at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, Tina Packer is bringing Shirley Valentine to life in a brief run that has a reprise in September. On stage Packer is Shirley. Thereís no two ways about it. She truly is this woman, this character, this person who needs that respect.
This is a one woman play. She talks to the audience as though they were really there, much as she talks to the invisible wall and later to a rock on the Greek sandy beach she inhabits exactly in the way she inhabits her own kitchen back home in the midlands of Great Britain. Shirley Valentine has created a world of people who are willing to listen to her, and this in a world bounded by the four walls of her kitchen, the four walls of her bedroom, and the market where she buys the things she needs to insulate the enclosed spaces where she exists. We get the feeling that if she ever stopped talking she would instantly disintegrate, fall apart where she stood and disappear.
The play, ultimately, is about the liberation of her spirit which allows her body to continue on its inevitable path to late middle-age, a path that also brings her illumination and release. She finds that she can take charge of those elements that have formerly threatened to defeat her. And the play is a comedy with a lot of hearty, human laughter.
To say that Packer was born to play Shirley isnít saying much. She looks the way Shirley speaks and she moves the way Shirley thinks. Her voice is what you would expect from the character. This is a play that Packer could perform anywhere, and probably should, for as good as previous Ms. Valentineís have been, none have seemed so honestly right in the role. At the end of the standing ovation for her performance she stopped the applause to make a deeply honest plea for support for this company to complete a challenge grant. To say that Shirley would never do such a thing is to ignore the similarities in the souls of Shirley and Tina. They really are one and the same and the pleaís genuineness was like a coda to the experience. A national tour of this play would clearly solve money problems for this company.
There arenít many opportunities this season to see Tina Packer as Shirley Valentine playing Tina Packer. Donít miss them.
Shirley Valentine plays through May 31 and again on September 11. For tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.