Stage preview: British playwright’s works becoming a top pick for PICT – Tribune-Review

by ALICE T. CARTER | Tribune-Review

PICT Classic Theatre kicks off its 2016-17 season of with a second look at the works of British playwright Willy Russell.

Following up on last season’s production of Russell’s 1988 two-character “Educating Rita,” the company will offer “Shirley Valentine,” the one-woman comedic drama that received a 1989 Tony Award nomination for best play.

Like “Educating Rita,” “Shirley Valentine” is an aspirational tale of a middle-aged, middle-class British woman who wants more from life. Weary of being ignored by her children and her husband and having conversations with the kitchen walls, she escapes to Greece on a holiday in search of adventure.

Alan Stanford, PICT’s artistic and executive director, is an admirer of Russell’s work, which includes the script, music and lyrics for the musical “Blood Brothers.”

“He is the unsung hero of writing for women. I think he’s up there with Ibsen,” says Stanford, who is directing the production.

”The point Russell is making is that young spirit within all of us. … She is a person who had a dream and says, ‘I can be better than this.’ ”

Stanford chose “Shirley Valentine” for actress Karen Baum because of the impact she made on the audience when she played Rita in “Educating Rita.”

“She was so popular,” Stanford says. “The wonderful thing about Karen is you can cast her in any role from 18 to 80. … She is a chameleon.”

PICT’s production of “Shirley Valentine” will be the company’s first in its new location at the Union Project in Highland Park.

The company was forced to relocate from its long-term home in the University of Pittsburgh’s twin theaters in the Stephen Foster Memorial because of an expansion in the university’s theater department’s activities.

“We will be guests for the next couple of seasons because we are looking for a permanent home,” Stanford says.

The new theater space at the Union Project will seat 160 patrons — a space considerably smaller than the 478-seat Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster, but a few seats larger than its 153-seat Henry Heymann Theatre.

For its “In the Raw” season, PICT plans to focus attention on the plays rather than scenery, costumes and other technical elements.

The audience will be seated on two sides of the stage so they face each other across the playing area in the center.

“Because we are putting plays at the heart of the audience, they are going to be up-close and personal,” Stanford says. “We want the audience to be in on the conversation.”