Karen Baum infuses the title character of Shirley Valentine with the spunkiness we’ve come to expect from this versatile Pittsburgh-based actor in PICT Classic Theatre’s season opener, running since Labor Day weekend at the Union Project. What better time to throw off last year’s worries and disappointments and start anew with Shirley as she leaves the drudgery of typical 1970’s Liverpool kitchen and has new adventures on the Greek island of Crete. It’s over-the-top delight that we travel with with only Baum as she takes Willy Russell’s heroine through a full range of emotions in this witty solo show, running through Sept. 17.
Baum has proven her wide range in many PICT productions, most recently in another Russell play, Educating Rita, in which she shared the stage with only the amazing Martin Giles. Now, Russell’s words are all hers and Baum expresses Shirley’s frustrations and joys over two acts.
Baum’s energy and charm is winning in this challenge of going solo.
In her kitchen, Shirley shares the disappointments of her life and marriage. She even cooks a meal on stage and makes Shirley’s kitchen her own by hoisting herself up to share confidences while seated on the kitchen counter.
Her husband Joe takes her for granted and “likes everything the way it is.” He is “not bad,” she offers. “He’s just no blazing good.” Joe even throws the eggs and chips she’s cooked at her when their dinner routine seems a bit “off”. “Marriage is like the Middle East,” says Shirley. “There’s no solution”.
At 42, Shirley is left unfulfilled in many ways, wondering what happened to the dreams of her youth. She decides to take a bold move, accepting her friend Jane’s invitation to take a holiday in Greece. She describes Jane as a feminist who “hates men” having discovered her own husband in bed with the milkman.
Shirley admits she is “afraid of things beyond the wall.” Her daughter pushes her over the edge, moving back home unannounced just as Shirley decides to go to Crete. “I’m going to Greece for the sex,” she yells to her daughter as she moves out as quickly.
Baum creates two Shirleys as initially her character is somewhat trapped but seizes a chance for change–or at least a view of the possibilities. Baum’s subtleties infer that Act I Shirley could be drinking too much wine for the wrong reasons; her Act II Shirley is free, independent, and enjoying life–with or without the wine–and in the company of a charming local man. Baum is particularly moving when she shares Shirley’s profound recognition “the waste of life” and how she can change her own course.
Baum creates Shirley’s conversations with her kitchen wall in Liverpool and with a beach rock and the sea in Greece. Her storytelling wonderfully recounts her memories and dreams with moods that range from sweet introspection to full outrage as she imitates her family members, friends, and nosey neighbors.
Baum makes great choices with Russell’s insightful script, her voice and accent, a strong flavor of Liverpudlian speech that let’s the audience into Shirley’s world. The time and culture differences in Russell’s script are noted, but not a concern as it’s Shirley we grow to care about. Baum’s excellent characterization and diction serve Shirley well with a wide variations that suit the story. So Baum is genuine whether in monologue or conversations she recreates with Joe and the other people in her life. Costumer Designer Michael Montgomery effectively dresses Shirley in simple and 1980’s outfit and an apron then a travel dress without taking a vintage look too far. Her white beach casual is topped with a silk robe–significant for it’s a gift from the very neighbor she feared would tell Joe about the Greek sojourn–and Baum’s lovely red hair provides Shirley with colorful options throughout.
Alan Stanford, PICT’s artistic director, directs Baum to take full advantage of the long, linear playing space. At one end of PICT’s new alley stage at the Union Project is Shirley’s kitchen; the other end is her surprise vacation destination. Johnmichael Bohach’s inventive settings lie are at either end of a 35 foot long and 10 foot wide stage. The floor elevation is only 8 inches from the room’s floor, so sightlines will vary depending on the action and where patrons are seating. Generally the set and Stanford’s direction accommodate for variables, but with a solo show in alley-style only provides so many movement options for Baum, short of her spinning constantly or breaking the fourth wall (not an option played out here), so she is often in profile.
The acoustics work well enough, considering the production is acted in just one voice; Baum’s voice and great diction support her words being clearly heard with few exceptions. Steve Shapiro’s well-placed sound cues ranges from hits of ABBA and other 1970s and ‘80s to Grecian seagulls.
Wherever you sit in PICT’s new venue, be ready to adore Karen Baum in Shirley Valentine. This show is indeed a love letter to every woman and inspiration for that power for transformation that lies within each of us.
PICT Classic Theater’s 2016-17 “Classics in the Raw” season begins Shirley Valentine, running through Sun., Sept. 17. The Union Project, 801 North Negley Ave (15206), is an accessible ramp building with ample street parking. For more accessible entry, use the Stanton Ave. entrance as the main entrance in on the Highland Ave. side of the building with steps. Note that the Union Project has two unisex restrooms for pre-show and intermission stops, as the curtain speech notes.
With a house capacity similar to the Henry Heymann (around 160 for each production), order your tickets early for this PICT season at Union Project. Each production of the PICT season has a three-week run (with several matinee options) with a post-show Q&A session, pre-show lecture, and a post-show Irish Nightcap (consult the calendar).
For tickets, seating charts, and more information check out PICT’s website here.
Special thanks to PICT Classic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons.