In order to become the title character in Shirley Valentine, Grace Diaz Tootle had to memorize 55 pages of dialogue.
That’s because it’s a one–woman show. She’s the only person onstage, the whole time.
It was a daunting prospect. “I would rather go to a rock fight than sit and listen to somebody talk for two hours straight,” laughs Tootle, a veteran of Savannah’s community theatre scene (she’s been acting, and directing, for decades). “I kept thinking, ‘Men aren’t going to like this. It’s a woman talking for two hours. They go to the movies to get away from that.’”
A comedy, Shirley Valentine was written by Willy Russell, a British playwright best known for Educating Rita. Russell is from Liverpool, in northern England, and his dialogue has that quick, nasal quality associated with the working class.
“I’m kind of doing an East Ender accent,” Tootle says. “And it’s written that way. On paper it says ‘so I got me little table, and I got me little chair.’ Instead of ‘um,’ it’s ‘erm.’ And if you have any kind of natural ability to do dialect, all you have to do is read it and you just kind of fall right into it. It made it very easy for me. It’s very sing–songy.”
Tootle’s performing Shirley Valentine this weekend, in a Savannah Community Theatre production at the Landings’ Plantation Club Ballroom.
She and Shirley were a smash two years ago, when the SCT first produced the show, in its old quarters on Victory Drive.
“Of all the shows I’ve ever done – and I’ve done a fair amount of them now – this is the only character I refer to in the third person, as if she is a living entity,” Tootle explains. “Because Shirley Valentine is such a lovely woman.”
The first act takes place in the kitchen of the home Shirley shares with her husband, Joe. As she prepares his egg ‘n’ chips supper – required to be on the table, every night, just as Joe steps in the door from work – she talks about her marriage, her family, her hopes and her dreams.
“It’s a testament to Russell’s writing at how engaging and interesting the stories that she tells are,” says Tootle. “Some of them are just ridiculously funny – you see a little bit of yourself in there – some of them are very poignant.
“Some really tug at your heartstrings. But they’re all so beautifully written that you can’t help but hang on every word.
”She’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s lived this little life, and so she decides to live the moment.”
The moment arrives in Act II, as Shirley dares to dream by accompanying an (unseen) friend on a holiday in Greece.
While there, she sits at a little seaside cafe and talks to a rock. “But of course, the rock doesn’t understand her, because it’s a Greek rock,” says Tootle. “It doesn’t speak English.”
In the U.K., Shirley Valentine won the Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1988; the following year, it moved to Broadway, where it won the Tony for Best Play, and two Drama Desk awards (in both productions, British actress Pauline Collins starred as Shirley).
Tootle says her onstage transformation is all–encompassing.
“It’s been a challenge for me as an actress, and as a human being, to do away with all of the sarcasm that I live and breathe. What’s so engaging and humorous about this show is that she doesn’t get upset by anything that I would normally be going off the wall about. She sees the humor in it. And so you grow to really love her, and appreciate seeing life through her eyes.”
Part of what makes Shirley Valentine – the play and the character – work, Tootle believes, is the interaction with the audience.
“When I did it two years ago, it was in a very intimate environment, and you couldn’t help but see the faces of the people,” she says. “While they’re sitting there smiling, and really involved with me. Right there with me.
“Occasionally there are little lines where I’ll make direct eye contact with somebody, like ‘D’ya know what I’m sayin’?’ And they’ll go ‘Yeah!’
“She’s so charming. She’s so funny. She really is luv–ly.’”
Where: The Landings Plantation Club, 71 Green Island Road, Skidaway Island
When: At 7:30 p.m. March 6, 3 and 7:30 p.m. March 7
Tickets: $17–$27 (also available as dinner theatre)
Call: (912) 247–4644