Theater Musings: Gender-bending portrayal of 'Shirley'

It made me stop mid-step. In theater, we call this a "beat," because the playwright has stipulated a short pause in the action and words.

The announcement on WWNO local public radio said “Ricky Graham, starring in the one-woman show ‘Shirley Valentine.’" Not Ricky Graham starring as Shirley Valentine, in a one-man show. A subtle difference perhaps, but it took the concept of a man playing a woman into a different place than I have come to expect. It disclosed, without saying it directly, that a man had been cast to play a female character, who just happened to be originally written as a woman. Such a swap is certainly not typical for this play!

Ricky has played female parts before. The degree to which he wants to acknowledge this to the audience has always been completely up to him and within his control – he can effectively play comic cross-dressing drag or subtle witty camp. He is an excellent actor.

But “Shirley Valentine” is a new twist. In this excellent production, it is quite simply not necessary to know that Graham is not a woman. He grasps all the subtleties of what Shirley is going through as a middle-aged homemaker who decides to reclaim some adventure, youth and romance in her life. He plays her with wit, courage and quiet grace. His appearance is not garish, his physical engineering not clownish. He doesn’t change the tone of his voice.

His birth gender while he is this character on this stage is, quite simply, irrelevant. (Beat)

The great Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson said this: “When you are doing classical work, everybody has to be so interested in the inner life of the character that they come to you.”

The night I attended, the audience came to Shirley … and they stayed to give a standing ovation to Ricky.

The cover of a recent Newsweek tagged Barack Obama as the first gay president because of his support for the fundamental rights of our gay citizens. Inside, I read this phrase about being gay surrounded by a straight world “… the struggle to belong in both places.”

If we were all as deeply wise, perhaps we could all decide that one shared place is enough.  I’d like to believe that live theater can help us get there.

“Shirley Valentine” is a production of Southern Rep and shared credit should be given to the savvy, unusual casting and guidance of director Marieke Garbourny, the theater company’s Managing Director. Ricky also has expressed praise for CC Covert, who costumed and "engineered" him, and Brian Peterson, who handled his hair and make-up. The production has one remaining weekend of shows at the Contemporary Arts Center. For tickets, click here.

For the Times-Picayune's review of the show, click here.

This column, Theatre Musings, follows the informal quest of New Orleans author Barbara Motley to verbalize why live theater matters.