Monday, September 5, 2016

Actress Gives Stunning Performance in "Shirley Valentine"

Karen Baum as "Shirley Valentine" Credit: PICT Classic Theatre
When asked recently why I wanted to catch a performance of "Shirley Valentine," a light-hearted comedy with dramatic depth by Willy Russell of "Educating Rita" fame, I replied without much thought that I wanted to see PICT Classic Theatre’s new digs at the Union Project in Highland Park and sit through another performance by Karen Baum, an actress I admire for her work at the Off the Wall Theater, although she’s performed in scads of other regional and local venues as well.

On closer introspection, I came to realize that it’s also because I have a character flaw - I’m addicted to theater. I’ll go to just about anything except plays with singing nuns and Greater Tuna in the title. Oh yes, and "Steel Magnolias," the only play I EVER walked out on at intermission.

While I could be addicted to things much worse, theater draws me in with the allure a flame has for a moth and only leaves me hungry for more. The chance to see Baum in a one-character play only added fuel to the fire.

Lately,  I’ve had the good fortune to see some wondrous work by local actors who manage somehow to carry off solo roles, probably one of theater’s  toughest assignments. These include Mary Rawson in Quantum Theatre’s "Ciara" and Linda Haston in Off the Wall’s "Mother Lode." And who can forget Randy Kovitz’ mesmerizing performance in "Under the Lintel," also at Off the Wall?

Dampening my enthusiasm for a rendezvous with "Shirley," is the fact that I’d see both the staged and cinematic version of  Russell’s "Educating Rita" and can’t say either were memorable experiences. He, however, redeemed himself in my book by penning some above average writing for Shirley, and by introducing an interesting antidote for those of us who feel locked into a humdrum life of routine, responsibility and regimentation.

Most of the audience will feel to some degree Shirley’s dissatisfaction with the lot life has given her. A woman of 42, she’s raised two children and spends her day cleaning house and cooking for her highly predictable and uninspirational husband, Joe. In between chores, she bounces her thoughts and regrets off the wall, literally, which seems to be her only outlet for venting her pent-up need for adventure and existential stimulation.

Ensconced in the former Union Baptist Church and now refitted and renamed the Union Project, the theater space is bifurcated by an "alley" stage, which runs front to back through the center with two banks of raked seats on either side. The action unfolds in between, and Baum has the onerous task of keeping both sides, left and right, engrossed in her performance. This she does with remarkable skill, abetted by the space’s good acoustics and the fact that she plays out the story line mostly from the far ends of the stage giving most of the audience both visual and aural ease of access to her performance.

For someone who’s never been to Liverpool, where the scene is set (at least for the first two-thirds of the play), or has even known anyone who hails from that city save for the Beetles,  I’m the last one to ask to validate the authenticity of her Liverpudlian accent. It did seem right on to my untutored ear and, getting a chance to speak to the actress post-performance, I discovered that artistic and executive director Alan Stanford, who directs the show, has spent considerable time in England’s largest western seaport and was an aid to giving her speech the requisite nuances of dialect.

Scenic designer, Jonmichael Bohach,  helps evoke the drama’s two locales with suggestive kitchen appliances and furniture at one end of the stage and a beach scene on the other, complete with lounge chair, large beach umbrella and the rock Shirley talks to while away from her customary kitchen walls.

In the first part of the play, Baum as Shirley, reminisces about her life, telling anecdotes about Joe, her friends, neighbors, family and herself. Rather than seeming immured in self-pity and dejected because of her lackluster life journey, Baum gives Shirley a more positive spin as a teller of colorful tales.

The second part of the 75-minute long first act is devoted to a startling turn of events when a friend who just came into some money after selling her house asks the bored housewife to accompany her on a two week trip to the Greek isles.

Well aware of her husband’s almost certain negative reaction should she go, she keeps her departure a secret, all the while wrestling with the momentous decision. Should she go or should she stay? Skewered on the horns of a dilemma, Baum’s Shirley reminds us of how tortuous decision-making can be.

The play could very well end with the adventure-starved woman leaving for a sunnier life, albeit an attenuated adventure that supposedly ends only after a few weeks of self-indulgence away from home. But the playwright decided to extend and expand Shirley’s story to show the audience the result of her momentous escapade.
For such an initially gray-appearing character, Baum brings Shirley’s colors to life like some painter with a full palette of emotional hues. Staring with Shirley’s meager hausfrau persona, she creates an interesting multi-dimensional character in a praiseworthy performance my theater companion hailed as Broadway and Hollywood worthy.

During curtain call, the audience gave Baum a valentine of their own when they spontaneously jumped to their feet to award her a standing ovation. I joined in their exhibition of pent-up admiration with the same enthusiasm I reserve for walk-off, game-winning homers at PNC Park. Both, I feel, are something really worth cheering about.

"Shirley Valentine," a production of PICT Classic Theatre, is at the Union Project, 801 North Negley Avenue in Highland Park, through September 17. For tickets, phone 412-561-5000.

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