Anyone whose identity has revolved around being a spouse and parent — then realized they’d let their own needs and aspirations go stagnant — will recognize themselves in “Shirley Valentine,” said Janeene Niemi, who plays the title role in the one-woman show opening Friday at Stageworks Northwest.
“Her story is inspiring,” Niemi said.
Although the show is told from a woman’s point of view, it’s relevant for men, too, according to playwright Willy Russell. “I know so many people and I see so many people who are carrying around this enormous burden of what never happened,” he told a British reporter in 2010.
“One thing that strikes me as particularly poignant is how she can’t remember the day or week or month or when it stopped being good,” said Niemi. “I’ve said some of the exact same things in my life, and I’m guessing many people have had the same thoughts.”
She said bringing Shirley Valentine to life has been an adventure, and “cathartic in many ways, as I’ve been able to draw from some personal experiences.”
Russell, who also wrote “Educating Rita” and the musical “Blood Brothers,” said he finds the nuances of human behavior intensely interesting. “I want to talk about things that matter,” he told a reporter for the London Telegraph in 2012.
Shirley also wants to talk about things that matter, but she’s alone. So she talks to the wall — and the audience — about everything from her son Brian’s disastrous role in a Nativity play as a child to Shirley’s aching desire to sit at a table by the sea and sip wine “where the grapes are grown.”
Talking to the wall is how Shirley survived, Russell said.
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“One of my favorite things about Shirley is her willingness to ‘own’ her own issues,” Niemi said. “She’s not looking to place blame or make excuses. She is honest and frank in her introspection, and she’s willing to learn from the things she discovers.”
Although she can’t help but be witty, she also shares her pain. To add to her distress, her best friend, Jane, has invited her to join her for a two-week vacation, and she’s certain her husband won’t let her go.
Shirley’s husband, Joe, hates travel. He’s a man of firm habits, which includes an unchanging menu for his evening meal — Thursday is steak night — to be served at 6 p.m. on the dot. When Shirley dares to break this tradition, his reaction gives her the courage to accept Jane’s invitation.
Niemi knew it would be a challenge to step immediately into another play after singing in “Some Enchanted Evening,” which closed Sept. 22. But she has wanted to do this role for many years, so she didn’t hesitate. Even breaking her right arm during the final performance of “Evening” hasn’t slowed her down.
“Shirley Valentine” is set in Liverpool, England, where Russell grew up. Although the script has been slightly modified for American audiences, there’s still a lot of Liverpool slang, such as “made up,” which means “happy.” A glossary will be included in the program.
Speaking of language, the play also includes some four-letter words and is therefore not recommended for children. However, unlike the 1989 movie version, there is no nudity.
The play runs weekends through Oct. 27 at Stageworks Northwest.