As a working-class English schoolgirl, Shirley Valentine used to jump off rooftops for fun. She was hungry for adventure and dreamed of traveling the world. Mostly, Shirley wanted a life as large as her own kind but cautious heart.
In Willy Russell’s powerful, one-woman comedic drama Shirley Valentine, running through June 12 at Cinnabar Theater, Shirley is now Shirley Bradshaw, a middle-aged housewife with two grown children, a husband who is less than caring and a tendency to talk to her kitchen wall while fixing dinner. Through a brilliantly constructed, humor-laced script, Shirley—played to hilarious and heart-breaking perfection by Mary Gannon Graham—recounts the uninspiring details of her life: her boring days, ungrateful children and unsatisfying sex life, all while adding her own wry and pointedly funny observations.
“Marriage,” she says, “is like the Middle East—there’s no solution.”
Gradually, she confesses her unfulfilled dreams, all of them buried years ago along with her name and her once-spirited self. We soon learn, however, that one of those dreams may have recently been unearthed as Shirley’s neo-feminist friend Jane invites her along on a two-week trip to Greece. It’s a trip she is aching to take, but is too terrified of asking her husband for permission.
“I have led such a little life,” she cries in a moment of despair. “Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don’t ever use them? That is how Shirley Valentine disappeared—she got lost in all this unused life.”We easily root for Shirley, hoping she will find the courage to follow her heart, and when she does, the result is electrifying. The second half of the show is set in Greece, where Shirley recounts her gradual reconnection with that youthful self she’d thought was gone forever.
Directed by John Shillington with a sense of elegant ease and a knack for illuminating Russell’s emotionally multifaceted language, the play immediately leaps to the top of the “must-see” list of the summer. As good as the script and direction are, the main attraction is Gannon Graham as Shirley. Another performance of such loving generosity, depth and skill would be hard to find.
As our heroine says toward the end of the play, “I’ve fallen in love with the idea of living.” In this lovely, deeply moving and subversively wise play, Shirley Valentine’s life-affirming discovery is nothing short of contagious.
‘Shirley Valentine’ runs Friday-Sunday through June 12 at Cinnabar Theater. 3333 N. Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. Fridays-Saturdays at 8pm; 2pm matinees on Sundays. $15-$25. 707.763.8920.