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Wednesday, April 3,2013

Williamston's funny 'Valentine'

Funny, poignant look at middle age grounded in sincerity

by Paul Wozniak
Photo by Chris Purchis
Meet Shirley Valentine: a middle-aged wife, mother and genre trope who learns to love herself on an excursion to a foreign country. She sometimes speaks in rhetorical Oprah-isms, such as, “You don’t start again at 46, do you?” On its surface, Willy Russell’s play, “Shirley Valentine,” is the spiritual archetype for formulaic female adventures like “Eat, Pray, Love.” But director Lynn Lammers and powerhouse actress Julia Glander demonstrate how great genre fiction can appeal to all audiences. Grounded in absolute sincerity, Williamston Theatre’s production of “Shirley Valentine” is an inspiring and entertaining treat for everyone.

Cooking English potato chips and eggs in her faded yellow, working-class kitchen, Valentine openly vents her frustrations to the walls and the audience just beyond. Dressed in high-waist mom jeans and sipping a glass of Riesling with a single ice cube, Valentine expresses a cynical view of marriage: “Like the Middle East — there’s no solution.” She shares stories of her friends and husband and children, giving funny yet unflattering imitations of each, all of whom seem blissfully unaware of Valentine’s thoughts or passions. 

Every anecdote Valentine shares in the first act illustrate the formation of a person ruled by fear and feelings of inadequacy. But they also reveal a person who revels in proving others wrong, a trait that provides a source of strength as Valentine begins to embrace life. 

Glander embodies Valentine with subtle charisma, shaping her extensive monologues like gentle ocean waves that slowly build and break on the shore with a punch line before receding back. She moves the show at a measured pace that feels natural. Glander adds texture and depth with facial expressions — like wry smiles or gaping sighs — that underscore her every emotion. Her twinkling eyes complete the persona, locking in and connecting with the audience with every moment. 

The real magic actually comes as Glander stealthily slips in and out of the other characters in Valentine’s stories, shifting her posture and accent, giving unique life to every creation. It’s the type of performance that makes the stage appear fuller than it is, beautifully incorporating the audience’s imagination to fill in the details.  

Daniel C. Walker’s scenic design completes the visual palette, working particularly in the second act as a sort of canvas for Glander to paint her performance. From a fully functioning refrigerator and stove in the first act to a blissful beach in the second act, Walker’s work supports the story without being in the way. The single rock upon a giant blonde carpet in the second act, illuminated by Genesis Garza’s lighting, not only resembles an impressionistic Greek beach, it also conjures a Zen garden, amplifying Valentine’s final sense of spiritual completion. 

With the wrong actress and hammy direction, “Shirley Valentine” would be ripe for the Lifetime Channel, but the few clichéd one-liners actually fit in the superb script that delivers feel-good optimism wrapped in honesty and emotional depth. 

“Shirley Valentine”
Williamston Theatre
Through Apr. 21
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
$20 Thursdays/$25 Saturdays-Sundays/$22 matinees/$10 students/seniors $2 discount
122 S. Putnam St., Williamston
(517) 655-7469
williamstontheatre.com

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