Swit looks for measure of magic in 'Valentine'

April 28, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Willy Russell's "Shirley Valentine" is about a bored, middle-aged, British housewife who takes a journey. The magic of this one-woman show is that, performed by the right actress, it can take the audience on a mini-journey as well.

Loretta Swit's performance at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre is a bit eccentric, but some of the magic still comes through.

Best known as Maj. Margaret Houlihan on the long-running television series "M*A*S*H," Swit has de-glamorized herself to play Shirley. She wears droopy clothing and a mousy-colored shoulder-length wig and speaks in an accent whose uneven British inflections are occasionally difficult to understand.

The play opens in her kitchen, designed by James Tilton as a small, cut-away room that may be intended to appear confining, but instead looks lost on the Mechanic's stage. Here Shirley Bradshaw (nee Valentine) folds laundry, cooks her husband's dinner of egg and chips, drinks wine, talks to the wall and, at times, directly to us.

Her monologue is filled with impersonations of, among others, her two grown children, her stick-in-the-mud husband and her feminist friend Jane, who is preparing for a two-week Greek vacation and wants the reluctant Shirley to join her.

Swit performs most of this with such abundant energy that she almost seems hyper. This is particularly true of her more fast-paced imitations of women, in which her otherwise low voice tends to become shrill.

Though she repeatedly tells us how dissatisfied she is with her humdrum life, Swit's Shirley is so ebullient that it isn't until the end of the first scene, when she gives a touching -- and uncharacteristically subdued -- account of a reunion with a girlhood acquaintance, that her discontent seems credible.

After intermission, she is deprived of the first act's housekeeping activities, and the staging -- by director Jeff Lee, uncredited in the program -- becomes fairly static, stifling some of the sense of release Shirley is supposed to feel.

At one time or another, just about everyone longs to pick up and escape the daily grind -- perhaps never to come back. The journey Shirley embarks on, however, is primarily a journey of self-discovery.

Swit's Shirley seems more serene and self-satisfied at the end of the play than at the beginning, but she also seems vulnerable to getting sucked back into her old way of life. Instead of a permanent change, this Shirley seems to have found the respite that comes from a long-overdue vacation.

'SHIRLEY VALENTINE'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Audio-described performances at 2 p.m. April 29 and 8 p.m. May 2; sign-interpreted performances at 8 p.m. May 3 and 2 p.m. May 6; through May 13

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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