Stage Review: PICT opens season with life-affirming ‘Shirley Valentine’ – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

by SHARON EBERSON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Shirley might as well talk to the wall, for as much as anyone listens to her. So she does. Constantly.

At 42, the Liverpudlian housewife Shirley Bradshaw fixes a meal she knows will displease her husband while addressing her kitchen wall, wondering how the rebellious girl who was Shirley Valentine has become the invisible mother-wife who does what’s expected and nothing more.

Her humdrum existence is about to take a sharp turn — if only she can take a leap of faith and accept an invitation to accompany her friend to Greece.

The play “Shirley Valentine” is a one-woman show that won Olivier and Tony awards for Pauline Collins in the 1980s and is a triumphant vehicle for Karen Baum and PICT Classic Theatre.

Last season, Ms. Baum and Martin Giles brought another very British Willy Russell play, “Educating Rita,” to a PICT stage. This time around, Ms. Baum is out there on her own as she takes us on Shirley’s journey and introduces a handful of other vivid characters.

Shirley arrives at her midlife crisis with help from a dismissive husband and spoiled daughter. The women in Shirley’s life are more naturally in tune with a women on the verge: a divorced friend who sparks the trip, a long-ago schoolmate with whom she has a chance encounter and a gossipy neighbor who makes a surprise gesture.

We know these women and others through Mr. Russell’s overstuffed but ultimately satisfying script and Ms. Baum’s ability to bring his words to life.

As Shirley builds toward her big adventure, it’s hard not to relate her journey to that of PICT’s. This season-opening performance is charged with anticipation of a new beginning for the company, in a makeshift theater inside a former church.

The Union Project on the corner of Negley and Stanton avenues in Highland Park has partnered with PICT to give the company a temporary home. It’s former home, the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland, is now in full-time use by the University of Pittsburgh.

The domed space within the Union Project has been transformed into an intimate alley theater, with tiers holding around 80 seats on either side of a narrow strip of stage. On opening night Saturday, every seat was filled.

Johnmichael Bohach has stretched the stage from dreary kitchen on one end to a sunlit, sandy beach scene on the opposite end, so that there’s no question of the show’s final destination.

The road to Greece is a slow build over two hours with an intermission. Shirley, much like the title character in “Educating Rita,” uses words to excess, often with escalating emotions and a dialect that keeps Ms. Baum and the audience on their toes.

Shirley finally lands on the question that defines her journey: “Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it?” With that, Shirley Valentine is finally ready to live life to the fullest.