Arts Festival's 'Valentine' is one from the heart

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One indication of the strength and viability of a play is the degree to which it is open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Pauline Collins set the benchmark for Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine" when she created the role in London, on Broadway and on the screen.

This season, however, Baltimore audiences have had the opportunity to see two other, widely disparate interpretations of this one-woman show about a repressed working-class British housewife.

The current one is the opening theatrical production of this summer's Maryland Arts Festival at Towson State University. It stars Maravene Loeschke, head of Towson's theater arts department, and is directed by her husband, C. Richard Gillespie, founder of that department.

This interpretation presents a more subdued, thoughtful depiction of Shirley than the fast-paced, comic portrayal given by Loretta Swit at the Mechanic Theatre this past spring.

Talking to us from her kitchen while she prepares a chips-and-egg dinner for her husband, Shirley says that when she was in high school, "I'd just exude boredom out of every pore." In middle age, boredom still defines Shirley's existence, as Loeschke portrays her.

Whether she's methodically unpacking groceries, sipping a glass of wine or describing her marriage ("I always said I'd leave him when the kids grew up. But by the time they'd grown up there was nowhere to go . . ."), Loeschke's Shirley seems tired, fed up and, above all, sad. There's even a resigned, bittersweet quality to Loeschke's voice, carefully trained in Shirley's Manchester accent, which the actress refined during a recent trip there.

But once Shirley decides -- without telling her husband -- to accept her friend Jane's invitation to join her for a two-week vacation in Greece, Loeschke begins to blossom. When she puts on the silk robe an envious neighbor has given her as a bon voyage gift, she already seems partially transported to the foreign land where, after years of routine, Shirley hopes to experience "the excitement of not knowing" what each day holds.

Indeed, when Loeschke's Shirley arrives in Greece, she gets a light in her eyes that wasn't there before.

She explains that she expected to feel serene in Greece, and although it took her a while to achieve that state, serenity is exactly what Loeschke brings to the sunny second act of Russell's play.

The transformation from bittersweet to serene is subtle, but it suits the introspective nature with which Loeschke imbues Shirley. Though this approach deprives the show of the big laughs it had with Swit, it succeeds in conveying the change in Shirley's character that is at the heart of the play.

Seeing Loeschke's Shirley so soon after Swit's also reveals the breadth of this seemingly commonplace British homemaker. To Swit, Shirley was a woman barreling toward a nervous breakdown and relying on her sense of humor as her only defense mechanism. Loeschke plays her without defenses; she starts out contemplative, possibly a bit depressed, and ends up, still contemplative, but calm and self-assured.

In the play's original incarnation, Collins' achievement was that she encompassed all of these qualities. Still, the choices made by Loeschke and director Gillespie put an interesting enough spin on Shirley to make you glad to see her again. Or if you're meeting her for the first time, glad to make her acquaintance.

'SHIRLEY VALENTINE'

Where: Towson State University, Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 20, and 2 p.m. July 16; through July 22

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 830-2787

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