By Willy Russell
Directed by Miki Joseph
At the Black Box Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts July

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Delvina Theatre Company, armed with good reviews from the North Shore papers for a series of productions in Salem and Marblehead, has come to the Boston Center for the Arts with a solo performance by the company's leading actress, Lynne Moulton. Willie Russell's "Shirley Valentine", which had a long run in London's West End in the '80's, is a two act virtuoso monologue about a working class wife and mother in Liverpool. Middle-aged Shirley is in a rut, tied to a housebound identity that has drained the joy out of her existence. The opening dilemma is simple: a girlfriend has offered Shirley the opportunity to spend two weeks vacationing in Greece, volunteering to pay Shirley's way. Will Shirley break out of the quiet desperation that has her talking to her kitchen walls, and discover the secret of happiness?

This Greek trip is a pretty spectacular undertaking for middle aged women who have had to pinch pennies all their lives. For a while it sounds as if the friend might be up to something seriously illegal: but no, the friend, though ready to jump if she is offered the chance at a sexual fling, just wants to be sure of having company. Shirley's wit, rueful without much bitterness, and Shirley's zest for life that turns the ordinary encounters of her daily round into little parables of irony, makes her good company. If an audience can be convinced that it is well worth the price of a theatre ticket to be with Shirley for two hours, it becomes plausible that Shirley's girlfriend would shell out a big chunk of her savings to have her on hand for two weeks. .

Shirley is afraid to tell her husband about the offer. She suspects that he will forbid her to go. How can a woman keep her self respect if she turns out to be the sort of wife who has allowed her husband to turn into a tyrant? He'll probably insist that Shirley stay home simply because what to her seems a rut is to him safety, a comforting sense of order. After all, when Shirley served chips and egg instead of the customary chips and steak on a Thursday, her husband was so angry that he threw the plate of food at her. Perhaps her husband will want to deny Shirley her chance for some fun because his own life and job are boring and miserable: misery loves company. Joe will argue her out of the vacation by reminding her that others depend on her being in the house ready to tend to their needs, even though the children are now grown up and living on their own. .

It's pretty predictable that Shirley will go to Greece. And since there are no other cast members listed in the program, it is also a good bet that she will take off without confronting her husband and getting him to concede that she deserves a little freedom and pleasure in her life. For her husband, the words "freedom and pleasure" conjure up visions of infidelity, of sexual abandon. Shirley claims that her husband has nothing to worry about: she thinks sex is over-rated. But Shirley also indulges in an extended riff on the fascinations of the mysterious clitoris, apparently discovered around 1975 and not a suitable topic for conversation or investigation as far as her husband is concerned. So Shirley is clearly going to have a life-changing experience on a Greek beach in act two. If not sex, what could it be? .

The Delvina Theatre is Lynne Moulton's company, named after Moulton's mother who willed her the money to found it. Delvina's primary reason for existence seems to be to give Moulton a crack at all the great roles for women past the ingenue stage: Amanda Wingfield, Dr. Livingston in "Agnes of God", Martha in "Virginia Woolf". Nothing wrong with this -- it is in the great actor-manager tradition. On the other hand, essaying a showy role, especially a solo role, is inviting a direct comparison with the foremost interpreters of that role, however odious comparisons might be. What is there to Russell's play, after all, but the revelation of unexpected depths in a stereotypically ordinary life? On this measure, Moulton comes up short..

For one thing, the actress has to struggle with the Liverpool accent. The version she arrives at is on the light side, eschewing some of the more vulgar sounds associated with the dialect, and placing Shirley in rather respectable company. Also, Moulton is petite, fair and plump, with a sweet smile and an ingratiating manner. She projects a personality that makes a good first impression, radiating modest self-confidence and charm. That makes her naturally good company -- but not a natural for playing Shirley. .

The Shirley of Russell's script, like the wonderful heroine of his earlier "Educating Rita" is a woman at war with the social restrictions that bind her class and gender, restrictions that insist that a woman must suppress essential elements of her human spirit. Shirley says that before she met and married Joe, when she was Shirley Valentine and not Mrs. Joe, she was a wild girl. She got low grades on her lessons in school and was always in trouble with the nuns for her misconduct. She envied the "good girls", the "smart ones", who were the nuns' pets, but she hid her envy behind a brazen facade -- just as, since her marriage and her motherhood, Shirley has hid her wildness behind a facade of respectability. She drowns her desires with gin or -- lately, as she has had her horizons widened by the hipper tastes of her children--- with white wine. While Shirley prepares her husband's chips, talking to us or to the kitchen wall, she downs a whole bottle of the stuff . In Moulton's performance, all this alcohol has no effect!.

I have no idea what Moulton's chronological age really is, but on the intimate stage of the BCA's Black Box theatre her director, Miki Joseph, has allowed the actress to appear to be in her early thirties. In her "cute" photo on the program, she looks to be in her late teens. Moulton's face and body show none of the marks of stress that come from a lifetime of drinking and battering and self-suppression in a family full of bullies on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Having this sort of a physical instrument to work with means that Shirley will be a big stretch for Moulton. The actress and her director must find another, less physical, way to show the desperation under the first act's humor, and make the boldest of choices to express the liberations of the second act..

After a week in Greece Russell's Shirley gets up the nerve to wear the bikini she bought on impulse back home, and even to swim naked in the ocean off the side of a fishing boat, in broad daylight. Shirley is elated because her Greek lover claims to be attracted to her bulges and stretch marks -- she exposes them as a declaration of independence and self-esteem. Love her or leave her, Shirley has decided that she will be what she is, and not measure herself against the expectations for a woman of her age and class. Moulton stays modestly covered, and, because she has been so cute and sweet before, there is no great change to seen: not even a bit of suntan. With a Shirley who isn't desperate in act one, and doesn't change in act two, what's the play about? A nice, attractive married woman who sneaks off to have a sexual fling, and gets away with it. Any changing to be done will have to come from her husband, who must shape up if he wants his well-behaved wife back.

I must admit that the women of the over sixty set who made up the majority of the Black Box audience seemed delighted by Moulton's Shirley, and gave her a standing ovation. They were on her side all the way, responding to her charm by laughing at most of her jokes and approving all her little indulgences. Never having seen London's Pauline Collins, or one of the outstanding Boston actresses who have performed Shirley, they were convinced that good company was good enough for them. But I don't think it is good enough for Moulton. In half a dozen years, battered by the spirit-killing conditions prevalent in small-theatre production and the cruel or cruelly-kind comments of critics like me, Moulton should come back to "Shirley Valentine", and get her right.