A Valentine to the Desperate Housewives…SHIRLEY VALENTINE at Hedgerow

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Long before Marc Cherry created the hit ABC series, playwright Willy Russell mined the territory of a housewife wanting more out of life than which detergent gets your laundry whiter.   In the interest of full-disclosure, I have to admit to a huge soft spot for Russell’s characters; one of my all-time favorite roles was Rita in Educating Rita.  It’s the story of an almost 30 hairdresser who feels there’s more to life than getting “pissed” at the corner pub with her husband.

Susan Wefel stars as SHIRLEY VALENTINE at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA through March 13.

SHIRLEY is Rita’s first cousin.  It just took a little longer for her epiphany…

Commissioned by Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, SHIRLEY VALENTINE premiered in 1986 – at a time when more and more women were reaching their domestic breaking points.  Now Hedgerow is reviving the piece for the third time, with company member Susan Wefel in the title role.  And it is clear Wefel loves inhabiting Shirley’s soul.

Shirley is a wife and mother of two. Her kids are grown and out on their own and her husband hasn’t had a kind word for her in decades.  She has taken to spilling her innermost thoughts to the kitchen wall; a state that many a woman in my age group can relate to.  It is a single girlfriend’s invite to join her on holiday in Greece that sets Shirley on a new path in life.

The play explores one woman’s search to find the girl she’s lost—and the woman she really wants to be.  This happens to so many of us.  We subjugate our dreams for those of our husbands and children, and they end up taking us for granted.   It doesn’t occur to them that inside the woman who’s gained a few pounds and whose hair is always a little out-of-date there is a vibrant human being with a brain and wit.

And Shirley’s wit is a hoot.  Though a few of the gags are a bit dated, many are real gems. The Liverpudlian accent may be tough for some, but hang in there, you’ll get the music of it soon enough.  Wisely, Hedgerow includes a brief glossary in the program to help you along.  Wefel seemed to be trying too hard in the early going at Saturday night’s performance,  so even I lost some of the lines (and I know that accent like the back of my hand.)  Susan – relax, you have Shirley in your bones.   Just let her flow out of you.  The bittersweet moments describing her husband’s reaction to her staying in Greece were the best.  Wefel slowed down and just shared with us. It was lovely.

Director Tom Teti (I have a soft spot for him, too) has done a great job of focusing in on the text and finding the many moments.  He obviously has a connection to his actress and the story.  What started as a teaching tool in acting class has grown into a poignant evening of theatre.    

Shirley is sharing Hedgerow’s stage with both Plaza Suite and Tony Braithwaite’s First Impressions, so set designer Zoran Kovcic has created a space that will serve all three.  Act I of Shirley takes place in her kitchen—and I was fine with just a table and chairs and a buffet to represent her home – our imaginations can fill in the rest.   In Act II, some foliage, wicker chairs, tables and a beach chair represent Greece, and the tavern that figures prominently in Shirley’s emancipation.  And it all works.  Of course, John Tiedeck’s lighting and sound designs and Cathy Miglionico’s costuming complete the picture beautifully.

SHIRLEY VALENTINE only has three more performances so don’t hesitate.   It’s a fun lead-in to spring and vacation time.   Who knows what dreams you’ll fulfill on holiday….

by Willy Russell
Directed by Tom Teti
March 2 – 13, 2010
Hedgerow Theatre
64 Rose Valley Road
Rose Valley, PA

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