Stage preview: PICT journeys toward the future with ‘Shirley Valentine’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

by SHARON EBERSON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alan Stanford is happy to report that PICT Classic Theatre is in the midst of a rebirth.

“I never want to live through another season like the last one,” he said of 2015, when a shortfall forced the cancellation of two shows and the company lost its longtime Oakland home.

That was then. Today, as the former Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre enters its 21st season, the company is operating with five full-time staff members, a slate of five plays and a new home, the Union Project in Highland Park. Besides a continued commitment to classical works, a new bar has been set for developing education and community outreach.

Austerity also will be an ever-present theme for a season dubbed “Classics in the Raw.”

Mr. Stanford points out that classical plays often include large casts, such as this season’s second offering, “The Merchant of Venice.” The opener on Thursday is the one-woman show “Shirley Valentine,” with Mr. Stanford directing frequent collaborator Karen Baum.

The Tony-nominated play is by Willy Russell, who wrote “Educating Rita,” which became PICT’s replacement show when “The Tempest” was canceled last season.

“He’s one of the few male writers, outside of Oscar Wilde and Ibsen, who actually has a wonderful understanding of the female condition,” Mr. Stanford said. “And Shirley is an everywoman in the sense that she’s a working-class woman from Liverpool in a drudge marriage.”

She seems to be sleepwalking through life until one day a friend whisks her away to Greece.

“She’s terrified of stepping outside her safety zone. Yet there’s something in Shirley — something in every woman, more so than men, my time on this planet has taught me — that wants to just take that one step,” Mr. Stanford said. “And Shirley does. And her life changes forever.”

In that way, PICT and Shirley have something in common, although circumstances forced PICT’s big step. The University of Pittsburgh’s expanding theater program reclaimed the Stephen Foster Memorial theaters, which had been PICT’s longtime home.

Finding a new venue proved an arduous process until Rebecca McNeil, chief financial officer of both PICT and the Union Project, suggested a partnership. Executive Director Jeffrey Dorsey agreed, and now PICT will hang its hat in Highland Park for the next two to three years, Mr. Stanford estimated, until it finds a permanent home.

“I knew exactly what we would do there the minute I walked in, which was to create an alley stage,” Mr. Stanford said. “Jeffrey loved the idea — a company that was a new expression to their audience and a sharing of outreach.”

The great hall of the former church has been outfitted with 161 seats divided into two sides to create the presentation Mr. Stanford envisioned.

“My production team; my tech director; Johnmichael Bohach, who is going to design the whole season, what they produce with the money I give them is mind-boggling,” he said. “We had been moving toward a more minimalist approach. Now I’m putting them into an environment where anything more than that is impossible.”

Besides running a tight ship in a new venue, PICT is raising the bar for education programs and community outreach, a passion Mr. Stanford shares with PICT’s board president, Steven Alschuler. Mona Rush has returned to PICT as the full-time education officer, offering programs that complement studies of productions such as Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Before PICT makes a case for the lessons of Shakespeare and Shylock, the dysfunctional royals of “The Lion in Winter” and ancient Greek tragedy of “Oedipus Rex,” it’s Shirley Valentine’s turn. The play is a love letter to what can happen if you are willing to take a chance — in Shirley’s case, on romance and adventure.

“It’s a joy for me to direct this show now, because I’ve just directed in [Dublin’s Gate Theatre] one of the other great ‘woman’s plays,’ which is Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Constant Wife.’ Which is exactly that — a woman who says, ‘No, I am going to do it my way,’ and wins,” Mr. Stanford said.

The director wasn’t talking about PICT when he described Shirley’s destiny — or maybe he was.

“It’s not that she leaves an old life for a new one,” he said. “It’s that she finds her life in this place where she’s never been before.”