Rubicon Theater Company co-founder Karyl Lynn Burns has discovered her ideal vehicle in the 1988 one-character legiter “Shirley Valentine,” that was made into a movie in 1989. She impressively mines the humor and pathos of Willy Russell’s lengthy award-winning work and is guided with synergistic rapport by helmer Greg Lee. Production is only slightly undermined by the wayward production designs of Tom Buderwitz (sets) and Steven Cahill (sound).
As portrayed by Burns, 42-year-old Shirley is a wonder woman of observation and recall. Trapped in her bare-bones row house kitchen with nothing to do but get her domineering hubby Joe’s dinner ready at the exact moment he walks in the door, Shirley’s overflowing need to communicate has led her to converse with the walls, fortified by generous swigs from her never-empty glass of Riesling.
Burns flows through Shirley’s ever-shifting thoughts with immaculate timing and dexterity, realizing her imagined folk both vocally and physically. One first-act highlight is Shirley’s recollection of a hated former classmate, the transcendently superior Marjorie Majors, who actually took elocution lessons. Burns is hilarious as Shirley describes a recent chance meeting with an immaculately groomed Marjorie during a rainstorm when Shirley looked like a “drowned rat.” With perfectly rounded tones, Shirley imitates Marjorie’s admission that she has become a highly successful hooker.
Within Shirley’s deceptively wry commentaries on her life’s experiences, scripter Russell reveals a deeply wounded soul who questions her identity, and wonders where her old self has gone to, because she simply does not experience anything that will allow her to form fresh memories and emotions.
Without overplaying Russell’s agenda, Burns subtly and humorously underscores Shirley’s growing realization that there is so much unused life in people, and how it is all too often wasted away.
Similar to the Mediterranean liberation of the British ladies in “Enchanted April,” Russell’s second-act plot device for saving Shirley is to have her accept an invitation from best friend Jane to enjoy an all-expenses-paid fortnight holiday in Greece. Burns’ Shirley actually appears to grow younger and more glowing as Shirley finally comes to terms with her own requirements for enjoying a lived life.
Shirley’s odyssey to salvation would be more viable if Buderwitz’s pristine first-act kitchen setting looked more lived in. He is much more successful in realizing the sun-drenched Grecian seashore outdoor café setting in the second act. Unfortunately, Cahill’s attempt to evoke the aura of waves lapping on a Greek beach sounds more like an impending storm.