PICTURED: Anna Kotula stars in Ojai ACT’s Shirley Valentine. Photo by Stephen Adams

by Emily Dodi

Some plays leave you laughing. Some leave you crying. Others just leave you. Shirley Valentine stays with you, especially if you are of a certain age. Willy Russell’s Tony-nominated play, onstage at the Ojai Art Center Theater through Feb. 16, is most certainly funny and heartfelt, but it’s the journey of its one character that stays with you, leaving you to wonder . . . what if? 

As described in the production notes, Shirley’s voyage is in “finding the courage to live an independent life.” A lonely, dissatisfied and very funny housewife in Liverpool, England, Shirley spends her days alone in her kitchen, cooking, cleaning and talking to the wall. In fact, she often addresses “Wall” by name as she reflects on her life and and exclaims how she longs to see the world “beyond the wall.” She laments her “unlived life” and how “Shirley Valentine” disappeared into becoming “Mrs. Joe Bradshaw.” On this particular day, however, Shirley sees a chance to break free. Her best friend has given her a ticket to come along on a trip to Greece. 

It’s not really a spoiler to say that Shirley goes to Greece. The true revelation is how Shirley is transformed while she’s there and what she has the courage to do next.

Anna Kotula is Shirley Valentine. I say “is” instead of “plays” because Kotula inhabits the character — every bit of the frustrated, fearful and finally free woman that comes back to life before us. Kotula also gives voice to some of the people in Shirley’s life in such a way that you can almost see them. It is a tribute to the collaboration of Kotula and director Steve Grumette that Shirley is so richly and deeply real. Kotula nails the humor and emotion of Shirley Valentine, not to mention her Liverpool accent. (At least to this American’s ears.)

Grumette, who also serves as lighting and sound designer, leads a skillful crew that includes set designer and painter Bianca Rice, who also serves as property master with Richard Sven Shelgren. For act one, Rice gives Shirley a kitchen that is the picture of middle-class malaise: a clean, well-appointed prison, complete with sunny yellow appliances and the uncanny sense that the walls are closing in. Then act two begins and . . . wow. Suddenly, we are in glorious Greece, thanks to Rice’s beautifully detailed backdrop of a Greek landscape that seems to go on forever. Rice was joined in building the set by Trent Jones and Shelgren. Costumers Mike Gaidano and Tracey Sutton put Shirley in suitably drab clothing in the first act. For the second, they dress her in an outfit that helps reveal (tastefully) the freedom and sensuality Shirley rediscovers. Haley René Culliton skillfully operates the light and sound board, with Kieran Culliton also on lights. 

While women and men over the age of 40 may most closely identify with Shirley’s midlife crisis, the play is for any adult who’s ever wondered about doing something or being something more. Shirley Valentine puts that question to us — then goes and shows us how it’s done. So go out and see Shirley Valentine, then go see for yourself what’s beyond the wall. 

Shirley Valentine through Feb. 16 at the Ojai Art Center Theater at 113 S. Montgomery Street, Ojai. For tickets and more information, call 805-640-8797 or visit www.ojaiact.org.