Braver Than She Knew

Laura Mitchell’s Tour de Force as Shirley Valentine at the International Theater: You are What You Allow Yourself to Be

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili | June 2008

Laura Mitchell choses the beach over chips and eggs (Photo: International Theater)

"I used to be Shirley Valentine, who turned me into this?" a middle aged Liverpool housewife asks the cream colored walls of her small kitchen. She is sipping a glass of Riesling while preparing the daily egg and chips for her husband, and dreaming of the trip to Greece her friend Jane has suggested.

Bitterness tinges her voice. "Another bottle and I will pretend that this is Greece," she says, and you wonder how long it will before the bottle takes over.

The International Theater was full for the fifth performance of Shirley Valentine, the perennially popular, one-character dramatic comedy by British playwright Willy Russell, which runs through June 28. This original, 1988 monologue version of Shirley Valentine alone in conversation with her kitchen wall and, later, with a rock on the sandy Greek shore, was a daring concept at the time, the lone voice that forced audiences to confront their own discomfort with the idea of a woman alone. Shirley’s authentic and appealing persona in a tour de force performance by Laura Mitchell allows us into a private world that had rarely been seen on stage before, fascinatingly alien to men, confirming to women.

Shirley is a dreamer, trapped in a life of deadening routine, invisible and unacknowledged. When a friend wins a Greek holiday for two, her frustration overcomes her misgivings and she sets out to discover what the world is like when she only has to answer to herself. She discovers the pleasures of her own company, eating alone in restaurants or sipping a solitary glass of wine at a beach café. It is a play about personal honesty and self  discovery, and learning that we are who we allow ourselves to be.

Russell is nearly alone among contemporary male playwrights in the success of his female characters. Few men know them so well: Russell began his working life as a women’s hairdresser, and although he left a few years later for a full time writing career, much of his work continues to center on women as well as the effects of the social class, influenced by his own transition from the working-class to become one of the UK’s most renowned playwrights. Shirley Valentine won Russell the 1989 Tony Award, the  Drama Desk Award for Best Play and the Olivier Award for Best Comedy of the Year. Thanks to Russell’s play, the character Shirley Valentine has become a synonym for middle aged housewives with wasted lives cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their family, who can only dream about the lives they believe they’ll never be brave enough to live. Laura Mitchell brilliantly handled her mission of uniting all these women in one character and showing us how easy it is to get trapped.

A one-woman show has to be a tour de force or nothing. This one works wonderfully. Through Mitchell’s brilliant narration, we are invited into Shirley’s private world full of other characters as vividly portrayed and present in our imagination. We compare Shirley to the women surrounding her, ones she thought were braver and happier. Like her friend Jane, a short-term "feminist," who caught her husband in bed with… the milkman.

"From that day, I’ve noticed she never takes milk in her tea," Shirley observes dryly, leaving us never quite certain whether the revealing non-sequitur is conscious or not.  But Jane soon finds a new male companion on the plane, and Shirley’s views on men return to a version of ‘I told you so.’

"Marriage is like the Middle East," she says. "Years of negotiation and no solution," and Shirley is left alone for the better part of their stay in Greece.

Shirley remembers dreaming about being like Marjorie, her class mate back in school: "I didn’t want to be a rebel, I wanted to be nice," she remembers. Years later, they meet in the street, Shirley with her mascara running down her cheeks, her hair a mess, dressed in ordinary clothes. Marjorie, elegantly dressed, is stepping out of an expensive white car. She has become a well paid hooker and confesses that she had always dreamed about being…  Shirley Valentine.

There is also Shirley’s daughter, Melandra, who had moved in with a boyfriend, but suddenly returns without asking, expecting to be cared for like a child. Melandra makes fun of her mother’s plan: "Two middle aged women in Greece?!" she says contemptuously, and Shirley cringes. "I felt ashamed thinking about the bikini I bought," she says.

But later, Shirley encounters her neighbor, Jillian, who had "a season ticket to Paradise."  She tells Jillian she is flying to Greece with her lover, still unsure she will be brave enough to go.

But later there is a knock at the door. It is Jillian, holding out a nicely wrapped package. It is a blue, Chinese silk robe with the price tag still on it.  "I’ve never worn it," Jillian says. "I wish I could, I was never brave enough. You are brave, Shirley, and it’s marvelous." In her friend’s eyes Shirley was no longer the middle aged wife, mother and next door neighbor; she was a brave woman. At that moment, Shirley realizes, she "could have jumped from a skyscraper."

Act II takes place in Greece, and Mitchell was transformed from the scared housewife into a beautiful woman wearing the Chinese blue robe and dark sunglasses, tanning on the beach. She asks the restaurant owner to move her table closer to the water. Would this make her dream come true? he asks her.  Costas not only moves her table, but also becomes the man Shirley though would never exist in her life. But even this is not the most important thing. What matters most of all is that she decided to stay in Greece, not because of him or anyone else, but just because of herself.

Produced by Marilyn Wallace, directed by Jack Babb and Laura Mitchell herself, the play is powerful and enormously appealing. Mitchell returned for several curtain calls and waves of enthusiastic applause.

Other articles from this issue