STOCKBRIDGE — Corinna May readily admits that Willy Russell’s “Shirley Valentine” was not on her bucket list. But when director Eric Hill approached her with the notion of working with him on a production for Berkshire Theatre Group, she couldn’t resist.
“I’m just so grateful to be doing a show,” May said, referring to the 18-month pandemic-caused shutdown of theater, during a recent interview on the Unicorn Theatre’s patio, where she was joined by Hill.
“This is one of those iconic roles. It’s wonderful to get a chance to take her on,” she said.
So, here May is, getting ready for the start of performances Friday, Oct. 1, at BTG’s Unicorn Theatre, where the show is scheduled to run through Oct. 24.
It’s a daunting undertaking, playing this iconic 42-year-old working class Liverpool mother and housewife, Shirley, who breaks free of the rut her life has fallen into and says ‘yes’ when a girlfriend invites her to join what turns out to be a liberating, consequential trip to Greece.
May is onstage, alone, for nearly two hours, cooking, recreating conversations and episodes with the various people in her life, at home and in Greece, as she spins a narrative of her past and present to the “walls” of her kitchen and, in the second act, a patch of beach in Greece.
She’s a great storyteller, May said. “People from Liverpool are great storytellers.”
While she’s been in shows that were “mostly” her, May has never done a play that was only her. “There are a lot of lines to learn,” May said. In addition, “there are a lot of characters who are part of Shirley’s story. It’s not just a matter of finding Shirley but [also] all these characters who are seen through her prism and creating them.”
The Berkshire Theatre Group will welcome audiences back into the Colonial Theatre this fall with beginning with the Berkshire Blues & Brews Fest in October. The theater group also will continue welcoming patrons inside the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge this fall for a production of "Shirley Valentine."
And there is the distinctively Liverpudlian dialect. May also had to figure out the timing in the opening scene — preparing her husband’s evening meal, chips and egg, while spinning out her narrative, buoyed by a glass of wine now and again.
“It’s a big mountain to climb,” May said. Still, “This is what we train for.”
The veteran actress credits her work on Shakespeare’s plays, primarily with Shakespeare & Company.
“All that experience with Shakespeare has helped,” she said, especially when it comes to Russell’s text.
“The language is rich and emotional,” May said, “and the play (on the whole) requires physical stamina. It requires all my training, skill and experience.”
Language is among the reasons Hill was drawn to “Shirley Valentine” when he was approached by his wife, Kate Maguire, BTG artistic director/CEO, to choose and direct the company’s fall production.
“Russell truly has an ability to define and develop character through language,” Hill said. “Language also gives rise to the comedy in the play; it’s built into the inflections of Russell’s words.
“She’s really funny,” May said of Shirley, “much funnier than I am.”
A more motivating factor than the play’s language is Hill’s belief that “Shirley Valentine” has as much to say now, if not more, as it did when it premiered in Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in 1986 or showed up in London’s West End two years later and on movie screens in 1989.
“The play is about escape and finding your true nature in the process,” Hill said. “I think that’s something we’re all struggling with in these times.
“Shirley’s true nature is free. She’s a regular woman with an extraordinary way to describe what’s going on around her. We see a character who identifies herself with her words and the world around her.”
For May, Shirley is buoyant; free at her core; looking for the self she has tucked away. May feels that Shirley has been “blown off course;” that, like so many women, Shirley has been diminished by her husband, her family, the culture around her, “people that tell you ‘Don’t change, who do you think you are?’ When does the noise die down enough to ask the question ‘Am I living the life I have the birthright to live?’ Shirley doesn’t want to be remarkable,” May said, “She just wants to be who she is.”
“She is a remarkably fascinating woman from Beatles land,” Hill said, with a laugh, of Russell’s title character and the city that was home to The Fab Four.
And if there is buoyancy in Shirley, so too is there buoyancy in the professional relationship between May and Hill, who said the two have enjoyed a strong working collaboration.
“Corinna is a joy to work with and has made my fall a pleasure,” Hill said. “We have been on a fun journey together.
“We are so glad to be back to work, doing what we love to be doing.”