Valentine's Day

Bridget Bean is phenomenal as Shirley Valentine.

click to enlarge BEAN THERE: Bridget Bean stars in this one-woman show at the Gorilla Theatre. - Jeff Young Photography
Jeff Young Photography
BEAN THERE: Bridget Bean stars in this one-woman show at the Gorilla Theatre.

Bridget Bean is the most charming actress in the Tampa Bay area.

There was evidence of this last November, when she had a small but affecting role in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. But now she's got the sole part in Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, and we have two full hours in which to observe her up close. What we discover is what the Bennett play only intimated: that Bean is a prodigiously talented performer who endears herself to us after only minutes on stage, and who, by play's end, seems like someone we've known and liked all our lives.

This is splendid acting, so seemingly straightforward and effortless, it's impossible to distinguish between the actor and her character. Are they really one and the same? Is Bean as tired and disappointed in life as Shirley is when the play starts? And does she have just enough courage to take one chance on the unexpected? Is it Bean or Valentine who tells us with a touch of melancholy that sex is overrated, that her husband no longer talks "nice" to her, that she doesn't dare leave him lest it turn out that there's no place for her "beyond the wall?" And is it Bean or Valentine who takes the risk of a Greek holiday, and discovers in the southern sun that her spirit's not quite dead?

I suppose it's possible that Shirley Valentine happens to resemble Bridget Bean, but there's a much better chance that this actor is so skillful that she disarms our disbelief and gives us reality where we expected artifice. How else to explain that we leave the Gorilla Theatre feeling we know Shirley Valentine as well as we know our best friends?

What Shirley tells us in the opening scene of this fine play is that her best days are past. She stands in the middle of John Burchett's functioning kitchen set and prepares eggs and chips for her unappreciative husband Joe. She's 42 years old now, she says, her kids have grown and gone, and the thoughts she once had of leaving never came to fruition.

So she drinks a little wine, cooks the dinner and reflects — on men, on romance, on her children. She mentions that her pal Jane wants to go off to a Greek island with her, but she's sure Joe wouldn't approve, since "if I go to the bathroom for five minutes he thinks I've been hijacked." Instead, she reviews certain memories: of a schoolmate she admired, of her son's gaffe in a Nativity play, of the happy early days of her marriage. And she thinks "I used to be Shirley Valentine ... What happened? Who turned me into this? I don't want this." Still, she can't see a way out. Quiet desperation, it appears, is her condition forever.

But something's changed in the next scene: Shirley's decided to go off to Greece with Jane after all. She encounters some obstacles: her husband's recalcitrance, her daughter Millandra's sudden decision to "come home and live with you," her own suspicion that "the time for adventures is over."

She keeps her good humor for the most part ("Yes, Millandra, I'm going to Greece for the sex") but the spark of hope is almost obscured by doubt and fear and the world's indifference. Even Shirley's "terrified, really," she resolves to eat olives on a Greek seafront — "An' I don't even like olives." At stake is her capacity to believe in her own happiness. What happens during her two weeks on the Mediterranean may redeem or crush her.

All of Act Two is devoted to her Greek vacation. I don't want to give away any of the events of this crucial episode, so I'll just say that Shirley's will to live is stronger than her discouragement, and that author Russell isn't as bleak-minded as we've come to expect of modern writers.

The second act is set on a patch of sandy beach arrayed with stones, and a chair and table — borrowed from a nearby taverna — set against a stone wall. In the distance is a Greek hillside, as warm and lovely as Shirley's kitchen was cold and antiseptic. On this coastline, Shirley — dressed in costume designer Mike Buck's melon top and white trousers — tells us a story that's neither predictable nor incredible, about the way an endangered spirit tries to save itself from extinction. "What I kept thinkin' about was how I'd lived such a little life," she says. "I thought to meself, my life has been a crime, really — against God, because ... I didn't live it fully ... Why do y' get all these feelin's an' dreams an' hopes if they can't ever be used?"

Her solution may not please all spectators, but it makes more than enough sense. Anyone who's spent time overseas has certainly met some Shirley Valentines.

And anyone who loves theater should make the acquaintance of Bridget Bean. This ingratiating actress, brilliantly directed by Nancy Cole, gives so much life to Shirley Valentine, you'll find yourself thanking Willy Russell for not putting other characters in his play. The author, who also wrote Educating Rita (the play and the film), seems to have a special appreciation of working-class women, their anxieties and aspirations.

Watching Shirley Valentine (and loving it), I was conscious of other artists — of Rembrandt, particularly — who found human beauty not in impossibly ravishing bodies and faces, but in furrowed brows and potbellies, sunken eyes and double chins.

Russell creates a loving, persuasive portrait of an "ordinary" soul in a "real world" where the vulgar is our only conduit to the sublime. We've come a long way from the days when only kings and aristocrats were thought appropriate subjects for serious drama. Now a good-humored but desperate housewife can tell us essential truths about saving a soul.

Catch this play. It's different. It resembles nothing else you've seen.

And Bridget Bean is luminous.

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