Stage Review: ‘Shirley Valentine’ at PICT Classic Theatre – Pittsburgh City Paper

by TED HOOVER | Pittsburgh City Paper

Big news: PICT Classic Theatre has left its long-time residence at the University of Pittsburgh and headed northeast — specifically, to Highland Park and the Union Project. A beautifully refurbished one-time church, the Project’s Great Hall is now home to PICT’s new season.

First up is Willy Russell’s 1986 one-woman comedy, Shirley Valentine. After playing London and New York, the show was adapted into a largely disappointing film, welcomed only for preserving the legendary performance of original star Pauline Collins.

Shirley is a middle-aged Liverpudlian homemaker who, over the years, has been ground down by the nothingness of her existence. House, husband, children, shopping … rinse and repeat. It’s not a horrible life, but to Shirley, it’s not really a life at all.

We meet her in the kitchen, cooking dinner for her husband as she remembers the past and tries to understand how she got where she is. Outside forces intrude when her best friend, Jane, buys her a vacation in Greece. It’s on a Grecian island in Act II that Shirley comes back to life and makes a few huge decisions.

Russell’s play is about as wispy as can be without actually evaporating. Its great truths aren’t much more than bumper-sticker wisdom, and there’s an unreality to Russell’s set-up. But at the same time, it’s an incredibly charming evening of theater and you can’t help loving Shirley from start to finish.

As director, PICT artistic and executive director Alan Stanford nimbly guides Karen Baum through the play with great feeling and restraint. It would be impossible for Baum to be any more endearing in the role, and she and Stanford have no difficulty getting us squarely in Shirley’s corner.

I could wish they hadn’t chosen to emphasize so heavily the play’s “serious” moments, and Baum is hampered by being seemingly years too young for the role. Whatever her actual age, Baum’s innately bright and fresh presence is in direct opposition to Shirley’s weathered ruefulness, and she works hard to bridge the gap.

Still, there’s something to be said for a play, and production, that’s only looking to cheer you up … and PICT has certainly done just that.