Dazzling. Simply dazzling.
That's Teresa Doggett in--and as--"Shirley Valentine," which opened Thursday night as a production of Stray Dog Theatre at Tower Grove Abbey, and she takes the audience on a sea-change ride of human emotion as she searches for herself. Her triumphant performance in the one-woman comedy-drama by Willy Russell, directed delightfully by Edward M. Coffield, will run through May 15.
It's 1986, and Shirley, first Valentine, then Bradshaw, then Valentine again, in both name and spirit, is a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife, emotionally battered in a bad marriage, dreaming of drinking a glass of wine in the country where the grapes were grown. She's cooking egg and chips (as they call french fries in England), awaiting her husband, Joe. It's Thursday, when steak always accompanies the chips, but Shirley, in a fit of pique-plus-generosity, has given the steak to a dog, and she's positive the dog will appreciate it more than Joe will.
She's pondering an impending and fierce chewing-out from Joe about the steak, and an invitation from a friend for a trip to Greece. She desperately wants to go but knows Joe won't hear of it. She's tired of ungrateful children and a husband who's a boor and a bore. Her sex life consists of "all that pushing and shoving, and little to show for it," and she's just plain unhappy about everything. She talks to her kitchen wall, telling it stories about her children's theatricals, her shopping adventures.
Eventually, she goes to Greece, and if her life doesn't turn around, it's pivoting in that direction. Author Willy Russell (he also wrote "Educating Rita" and "Blood Brothers") is spot-on in his depiction of middle-class English. Shirley's discussion of her clitoris and her stretch marks is hilarious, as are her adventures as she buys clothes at Marks & Spencer. Her insights into a Greek waiter are perfect.
And so is Doggett, a veteran actress and costume designer (including her own as Shirley). It's a casting gem. Doggett is a woman whose age and look are just right, and she does a brilliant job with the accent, close enough to Liverpudlian to be understandable. She's a mature woman, not a glamour girl under tons of makeup, and she totally understands and inhabits Shirley. It's a real tour de force performance, and she holds the audience with a tight grip--not of death but of life.
Coffield's understanding is equally perceptive and complete, using a light hand on the throttle. L. D. Lawson's set is a proper English kitchen in the first act, but the Grecian seashore of the second seems to be displaying abandoned World War II fortifications in Normandy.
"Shirley Valentine," by Willy Russell, presented by the Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey through May 15.