The sudden death of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant on Sunday cast a pall over not just Southern California basketball fans, but people around the world who admired Bryant for his devotion to family, work ethic, selfless charitable endeavors, and his ability to bounce back from adversity. The shock was still palpable when afternoon came, but I had to go to Ojai to review a play at the Ojai Art Center.
Shirley Valentine is a one-woman play written by Willy Russell about a middle-aged working class Liverpool housewife who is going through a midlife crisis. On a whim, she decides to accept a girlfriend’s offer to spend two weeks in Greece, giving her new perspectives on her life. The play made its premiere in Liverpool in 1986 and eventually made its way to Broadway, starring Pauline Collins. Before its run ended, Ellen Burstyn had taken over for Collins, with Loretta Swit playing the part in the show’s first national tour. A successful motion picture followed (1989), with Collins reprising her portrayal.
Anna Kotula, a gifted Ojai actress who previously played Emily Dickinson in another one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst (see our review of 9/19/19), was looking to tackle a project to commemorate the centennial of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, and Shirley Valentine fit the bill. Shirley is no Susan B. Anthony or Jane Addams; she is just a bored, 42-year-old housewife whose daughter has grown up and left home, leaving her in a stagnant rut, married to Joe, an emotionally ambivalent husband who doesn’t get her frustration with her life. Kotula’s life-affirming performance serves as a salve against the open wound of the Bryant tragedy, which I will explain in a little bit.
Through Shirley, we learn about her next-door neighbor, Marjorie Majors, who makes her jealous because of her independence and supposedly carefree lifestyle, and her feminist friend Jane, who, one day, offers to pay for a two-week girlfriend vacation to an exotic Greek island. Overcoming her fears of taking off without notice, she cooks two weeks of meals for Joe, puts them in the freezer, packs her bags, and leaves. The trip rejuvenates her. She has a fling with a charismatic barista and decides that she likes Greece so much that she will remain there, philosophizing her reasons to us as she explains how she had “gotten lost in unused life.” “Dreams are never in the places we expect them to be,” she tells us. “We don’t do what we want to do, we do what we have to do, and carry the weight of our unused life with us.”
By the end of the play, Shirley is still Shirley. She hasn’t become an overnight success, achieved wealth, or found enduring romance. She’s still an ordinary middle-aged housewife from Liverpool. But she has found the beauty in just being herself and is deliriously happy with the new Shirley. What has actually changed is her sense of self worth. In essence, Shirley has given her life a fresh coat of paint, though she aspires to nothing more than to sit at a table by the beach, nursing a glass of wine, content to watch the ocean waves roll by.
Here’s where the relevance to the Bryant tragedy comes in. Although Kobe Bryant died prematurely, he lived his life at full throttle – setting goals and devoting one hundred percent of his energy to achieving them. During his career with the Lakers, Bryant was single-minded about winning NBA championships, but when he retired, he faced a situation that parallels what Shirley experiences: what now? For Bryant, the limelight was no longer necessary for him to be happy. He had matured to the point where he recognized that he wanted to redirect his energies toward his family and in developing new passions. So he decided to become a film maker, and using his well-disciplined work ethic and innate abilities, won an Oscar in 2018 for his short film, Dear Basketball. Before his retirement, he had taught himself to play piano, learning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata by ear, and performing it with the Loring String Quartet. And he reinvented himself as a coach, taking his middle-school-aged daughter Gianna under his wing, content to be working in the non-starry environment of a local girls’ basketball league.
The turn in Shirley Valentine’s life happens on a smaller scale than that of Bryant, a world-renowned superstar, but the lessons she learns are reflected by Bryant’s entire life. Shows like Shirley Valentine, which is so beautifully performed by Kotula, should give us our own fresh coat of paint and recognize the value of a life well lived, no matter its length.
Director Steve Grumette worked with Kotula to fill out the character of Shirley, affable, funny, and surprised that she could still be alluring in her forties if she put her mind to it. In Act I, she addresses the audience (and the walls of her home) in lamenting her barren marriage and mourning her carefree past. There’s nothing really wrong with Shirley; she’s just like countless mothers whose identity was wrapped up in their marriage and their children, and who find themselves without purpose when empty nest syndrome hits.
To prepare for the role, Kotula taught herself a Liverpudlian accent, which is highlighted by an Irish lilt, making her seem less dodgy and more sympathetic and folksy. Set designer Bianca Rice created a well-stocked kitchen set for Act I and a bright, blue-and-white seaside setting for the Greek island in Act II that looks like it could have been used for a production of Mamma Mia! One-woman shows are few and far between, but Anna Kotula has come up with what is, for her and for us, a perfect way to kick off an important milestone year honoring the empowerment of not just women, but the human spirit.
Shirley Valentine plays through February 16 at the Ojai Art Center Theater. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. Tickets can be purchased at www.ojaiact.org