“FLYING SOLO: JUDITH IVEY BRINGS HER COMEDIC FLAIR OF LWT – Long Wharf Theatre

Sunday, November 28, 2010

By Donna Doherty, Register Arts Editor
ddoherty@nhregister.com

NEW HAVEN — The story line is the stuff that daydreams and bubble captions over the heads of cartoon and film characters are made of: One day, sick of the daily grind, you just pack it in and go for it, have an adventure that prompts family friends to say, “That’s just not like her.”

“Shirley Valentine,” opening Thursday at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II, is such a fantasy, the witty story of a Liverpool housewife who makes good on her threat to pack up and leave her needy husband and kids and join friends on a Greek vacation odyssey.

Judith Ivey returns to LWT after her award-winning performance here as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” in 2009, to play the title role in the one-woman comedy written by Willy Russell in 1986. The play won awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards when it moved to Broadway in 1989, its mixture of “anxiety, humor, wonder and mischief” called “completely infectious” by one critic.

Ivey has made a career of playing strong women — from Wingfield to Noel Varner in “The Long Hot Summer” and B.J. Poteet on the TV series “Designing Women.”

“What’s different about Shirley than the other strong women I’ve played is that she doesn’t start out that way,” Ivey says. “She kind of finds her strength. Certainly, the other two women I played that you mentioned had already found their way. Strength wasn’t a question. If anything, it was a question of putting their strength away. Shirley needs to be a little stronger.”

In fact, Ivey was finding Shirley a bit of a challenge. The Tony and Drama Desk Award winner (“Steaming” and Hurlyburly”) used the word “terrifying” several times as she chatted during a rehearsal lunch break this week. She hinted that she may be identifying more than she’d like with the vissicitudes of middle age that her character is feeling.

“It’s terrifying. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and I wish I had memorized it a year ago. I would feel much more confident a year ago,” she said with a little laugh.

The Broadway, film and small-screen star has several one-woman shows under her belt, but even a veteran can admit, “I wish we were talking before rehearsal started or at the end,” feeling the weight on her shoulders.

“The challenge is to make it interesting,” she says of the structural concept of a show with only one person on stage, “that it just doesn’t become a recitation, dramatizing it. It’s beautifully written that way. It’s not like trying to do something the playwright didn’t take care of. It’s that simple. How does someone tell a story that you want an audience to listen to for two hours? How do I move this along and not sound like I’m sitting and just retelling the story?”

She brings to Shirley, she says, some of her own maternal instincts to want everything to be right for everyone else, sometimes disregarding one’s own needs.

“I think her kind of willingness to go along and make it all right, I can get through this, it’ll be better tomorrow — is a lot of my own personality. And that serves everyone well in many ways. It also doesn’t stand you in reverse to not stand up for yourself … .”

Taking the personal experience and making the character, especially this witty Liverpudlian housewife someone we’ll all identify with is where a good director can help, and Ivey has the utmost confidence in LWT Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in that role.

“You can only invent so much by yourself, and having someone there, a pair of eyes saying, ‘what if you did this,’ or ‘I think it’s better if you act this part out like we’re right in the moment,’ instead of me telling about it. That’s something Gordon gave me today …,” Ivey says.

“From my own experience, I know that my acting partner is the audience, and I’m reliant on their reaction to me and the story I’m telling. That’s not always predictable. As you get into the run of the play, you can sometimes predict. …”

She equated it to rehearsing a play and having a different person show up every time.

“It can vary enough that you’re kind of on your toes every single performance in a way you’re not necessarily in a more standard play where there’s more than one character and the fourth wall is up. When you break that fourth wall, you can then start to relax, because certain reactions become evident. You can start to rely on those for relaxation.”

The fact that “Shirley Valentine” is a comedy helps, too.

“Any time you do a comedy, the actor gets to relax while the audience is laughing, and you can take that moment and re-gear for the next moment. If they don’t laugh, you have to keep moving, and that’s where it becomes exhausting …”

Since Shirley’s a housewife, Ivey says she has to make sure she is just that and doesn’t come off as too theatrical when she is telling her stories and mimicking the people telling them for the audience.

When “Shirley” was made into a film in 1989, there were those who thought it needed a cast of characters, along with its exotic setting to tell the story. It was generally panned for straying too far from Russell’s stage format.

In addition to telling the audience the story through the other people in Shirley’s life, by way of conversation, or movement on stage, there’s Shirley’s Liverpool accent to nail.

“I love learning it, but it’s a challenging dialect, and it needs to be second nature — something I didn’t even have to think about with Amanda Wingfield,” says Ivey.

And few realize how difficult it is to be walking, talking, and cooking a meal, while keeping eye contact with the audience.

Ivey even has experience to fall back on there.

“When I was very young, I started my career in TV commercials as the Red Lobster girl for about a year. I got so good at being able to walk and talk and carry these plates of hot shrimp, but when I first started it was nightmarish …”

And now, it’s helping her dream up Shirley Valentine.

Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672.

 URL: http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2010/11/28/entertainment/arts/11128_l…

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