Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 6, 2021

Review: Berkshire Theater Group, Shirley Valentine

Berkshire Theater Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 24, 2021
by Lisa M. Covi

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell
Corinna May showcases an ability to both captivate an audience and illustrate a transformation as Shirley Valentine, the solo-actor in "Shirley Valentine." This is the first time May has tackled a one-woman show.

The playwright Willy Russell takes the audience from a claustrophobic flirtation with madness to self-actualizing exhilaration. The titular middle aged housewife's empty nest and precarious marriage spur her sudden break to discover new and positive ways to express herself in the world; a world that she knew existed for other people.

Berkshire Theater Group's Unicorn Theater is a perfect setting for this one-woman show. The theater's intimate size makes the convention of breaking the fourth wall seem natural and seamless. The scenic backdrop of a row of roof lines in her Liverpool neighborhood in Act I contrasts beautifully the azure coastline of the Greek Isles in Act II.

Although the heroine's journey is relatable and timeless, the play's text at times seems dated in a way that limits its impact because of the choices for setting and exposition. One example, particularly for American audiences, is the consistent and authentic Liverpool accent May adeptly executes. The British terms and pronunciation are not as confusing as figuring out that Shirley Valentine's “Wall” was not the name of her husband (Joe) but the term of address she uses for the unresponsive kitchen wall with whom she converses.

The narrative includes many other unseen characters in Shirley's life. The director might have included vocal cues into Shirley's impersonations, but instead relies upon verbal and emotional characterizations in her dialog. Nonetheless, the plot and personality of May's acting skills give the play emotion and humor.

The plot suggests that her home, like her marriage, is in need of renovation. However, a little transformation on the part of May's role comes about slowly, as intended. The initial tension in landing Valentine's humor eases as the character gains confidence.

One wonders if the rut Shirley finds herself facing in the mid-1980's is out of step with today's audience. For instance, Shirley struggles with the definition of myriad of feminist and self-deprecating descriptions; i.e. Shirley uses the term “silly bitch” to refer to herself and others, and a humorous discussion involving the mispronunciation of an anatomical term involved with her sexual re-awakening. 

Shirley Valentine personifies the delayed coming of age of women in a particular societal role. Certainly there are still women today who are directed or make life choices that result in a feminine mystique-type consciousness-raising. Nevertheless, as a play, Shirley Valentine showcases a kind of character development and journey that is both a cautionary tale and inspiring call for action. Willy Russell's story is a literary ancestor of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." Corrina May's Shirley Valentine brings fresh aplomb to this cheeky British woman.