KPBS AIRDATE: March 18, 1992
In this 1989 one-woman play, Shirley sends herself a valentine. She emerges from the stupor she’s been in throughout her subservient, lower middle class Liverpool marriage. And she busts out: she flies off to Greece and has a ball — and a fling. She learns to like herself again. It’s one of those tiny little personal triumphs that may make for fine theater, but doesn’t necessarily have very a capital-B Big message. Not to mention that, although many women are still trapped in lifeless, boring marriages — and so are many men — this still smacks of an old fifties kind of rut, untouched by the last twenty years of feminist politics and polemic.
This woman is terrified lest the steak not be served on Thursday, lest the meal not be on the table the very second her man comes through the door. Oh, puh-lease. Maybe the fact that the play is written by a man dulls its sensibilities. In any event, it’s hard to believe it was written only three years ago.
The piece was spruced up quite a bit for the 1989 movie, which, as Hollywood is wont to do, filled in all the characters Shirley describes, and left absolutely nothing to the imagination in the ending. Hollywood , as we know, doesn’t believe an audience has an imagination. But that’s film, and this is theater. And, as Willy Russell constructed the original stage-play, this lonely, unhappy hausfrau spends most of her days talking to the wall of her kitchen — directly. “What do you think, Wall?” she’ll say. In the second act, which takes place in Greece , she finds a surrogate listener. “Rock,” she says, and goes on to make ponderous statements like “Most of us die long before we’re dead.” or “My life has been a crime against God because I didn’t live it fully.” But mercifully, Shirley is also very funny, and she has a marvelous lust for life.
This is a wonderful role for a versatile actress. It’s not easy being onstage alone for two hours, creating the rest of the cast in the audience’s mind, imitating their accents, dialects and manner of speech. It’s even harder doing all this in the round, trying to move about enough so that everyone feels the intimacy of the conversation.
Old Globe regular Katherine McGrath is up to the task. She may look a bit beyond 42, but she positively glows in the second act when she finds herself — and her Greek waiter. She’s alternately lively and lifeless, energized and oppressed, frightened and free-spirited. We admire her; we may even know her, sort of. And maybe, if we’re in the right, receptive mood, she may inspire us to take on some change in our own lives, to do something we’ve feared, to break out of some constraint. Well, that’s what the playwright probably intended, anyway.
Personally, I wasn’t exactly ready to bungee-jump or anything at the end, but l like the lack of resolution to the play, the uncertainty about whether or not Shirley will return to her humdrum life or stay free in Greece . The choice, after the way she describes her husband, keeps us rooting for the lady rather than the tiger.
From the director’s chair, Craig Noel — 75 and still going strong (maybe he’s ready for bungee jumping!) — has mounted the piece with sensitivity, and kept McGrath on the move as much as possible. It’s a fun play, small, not enormously significant, but it shows us a bit of what theater can do, with a little magic and without pandering to the audience.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.