Willy Russell knows how to write multi-dimensional women. His two-character play "Educating Rita," about a working-class Liverpool woman who attends college to better herself, was a massive success and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film. Russell himself was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and both leads, Julie Walters (in the role of her career) and Michael Caine, were nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively.
Then, his "Shirley Valentine," a one-woman play about a Liverpool housewife who sets about reclaiming the dreams she put on hold for husband and family, brought him a Tony Award and gave star Pauline Collins (in the role of HER career) an Oscar nomination, a BAFTA and a Tony.
In this new production of "Shirley Valentine" at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Dee Dee Rescher takes on the iconic role. Rescher, a veteran of countless film, TV and stage productions, inhabits the character with less melancholy and spunk than Collins did, but she grounds Shirley in a light-hearted gravitas (which isn’t an oxymoron when you see it) that’s moving as she morphs from a housewife accepting of her fate to a woman who decides to take control of her fate when opportunity presents itself.
Russell’s words are so poignant and so relatable that Shirley bursts onto the stage fully fleshed out in all the glory of her gray life even before she sets off to reclaim her colors. The role is a tour-de-force (this is Rescher’s fourth time playing Shirley) as the character runs the gamut of emotions and changes in realistic and moving ways. Rescher imbues her with pathos, plumbing her frustration and also her irrepressible spirit.
The 130-seat Falcon is a perfect setting for such an intimate tale. It really is as though Shirley is talking directly to you, whether she’s in her drab, spare kitchen or sitting in a place by the sea where the grape is grown. Director Andrew Barnicle smartly allows the play to breathe, to allow Rescher to take her time and allow the character to live in the silences that have come to inform her life.
Whether you’re a middle-aged woman is irrelevant -- you’ll give in to Shirley’s buoyant spirit and quest for freedom. After all, haven’t we all deferred a dream and decided we wanted it back?