Teresa Doggett, the Welsh-born actress, plays the title character in Willy Russell's 1986 one-woman show. And, with the help of director Edward Coffield, her Shirley Valentine is like the proverbial frog in boiling water, not quite realizing how badly she needs to jump out of her own bad situation. The signs are all around, and the cross she bears gets heavier and heavier: an angry, demanding husband; neighbors who think she's a cipher or ridiculous or has consigned herself to being some sort of pack animal; and, finally, a daughter who "boomerangs" home, expecting to be waited on by her loving but servile mother (but is the first victim of Shirley's turnaround).
The show works very smoothly, and the second act is a tour de force of writing and acting, as Shirley makes good on her grand design, to escape from Liverpool. But a very minor sense of disappointment creeps in as I realize that she's not some overly whimsical or pathetic oddball like TV's Marge Simpson or Edith Bunkershe's just a dear, unassuming person who's under steadily increasing pressure. But that's probably why her second-act escape is so thrilling. She's an ordinary woman who actually makes an extraordinary choice. And her observations along the way are priceless: down-to-earth, practical, but still idealistic.
Director Coffield's main contribution seems to have been in building a contrast between the Shirley of act one and her enormous changes in act two. Perhaps because act one seems so real, her emergence from the coils of domestic domination to the freedom creates a sense of astonishment, and a release that's all the more breath-taking. It's hard to explain, but somehow it's one of the most joyful triumphs on stage this year.
Through May 15, 2010 at the Stray Dog Theatre, in the Tower Grove Abbey, between Shenandoah and Sidney on Tennessee Ave. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org.