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Theatre: <i>Shirley</i>, you jest
SCT presents a one-person comedy about a middle-aged woman finding herself
Grace Diaz Tootle as Shirley Valentine

If anyone is up for a challenge, it’s Grace Diaz Tootle.

“I’ve been a single mom since 1999,” Tootle says. “I have four children. I have a stressful job as a supervisor for a major airline with an erratic work schedule. I don’t have weekends off. It’s sick.”

So what does Tootle do in her spare time, what little there is? She takes on even bigger challenges.

The most recent one is doing the one-woman show, Shirley Valentine, which opens Feb. 22 at Savannah Community Theatre. “I didn’t actually count the words, but there are 56 pages of nothing but me,” Tootle says. “I’m still memorizing it.”

Fortunately, Tootle has lots of theater experience, although Shirley Valentine isn’t the typical production. “The whole process has been completely different from any other show I’ve ever done,” she says.

“The rehearsals consist of me sitting in front of the director,” Tootle says. “It’s pointless for him to listen to me read for an hour and a half, so we started working on four pages at a time. He has me go back and work on the accent and talks to me about what my mind-set should be.”

One of the most difficult scenes requires Tootle to fix a meal of chips ‘n eggs while delivering lines. “My daughter was really worried about me cutting myself, so now if I mention the code word, the stage manager is to be immediately backstage with bandages,” Tootle says.

The sheer size of the role is daunting. “If I think about the show in terms of the entire script, it’s very intimidating,” Tootle says. “If I look at the thickness of the book, it gives me apoplexy.”

Director Tom Coleman III had Tootle in mind all along for the role. “It’s something new for me to try to do, which is exciting and frightening,” she says. “I’m a little proud of myself, although I wonder why I do this to myself. But if we don’t stop trying and growing, we become stagnant, which is the message of the play.”

Shirley Valentine was written by Willy Russell as a monologue by a middle-aged, working-class Liverpool housewife. Feeling that her life is in a rut, Shirley often finds herself talking to the wall while preparing her husband’s chips ‘n eggs.

When her best friend wins a trip for two to Greece and invites her to go along, Shirley immediately packs her bags, leaves a note for her husband and heads out the door. While she is the only character in the play, other people are mentioned throughout.

“It’s definitely Shirley telling the story,” Tootle says. “When she’s speaking as her daughter, I change my voice a little bit, but I’m not doing voices, I’m hearing voices.”

Shirley is a very insightful woman, Tootle says. “Her stories are charming, poignant and reflective,” she says. “I just think it’s a great show to go see even if you see it alone. It’s a wonderful opportunity to sit and listen and identify and reflect and come away a little bit braver and happier. It’s any woman and every woman who’s just having an epiphany in the middle of her life.”

Knowing how busy Tootle is, Coleman held auditions for the show just in case. “Once I started talking about the show, everyone came up and said, ‘You need to get Grace,’” he says.

The season has been varied, and Shirley Valentine continues in that vein. “With 84 Charing Cross Road, we got very serious. See How They Run is about as silly as you can get,” he says. “This is comedy that gives a story with a beginning, middle and end.”

Savannah Community Theatre, 2160 E. Victory Dr.,will presentShirley ValentineFeb. 22, 23 and 29 and March 1, 6, 7, 8, 13 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and March 9 and 16 at 3 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, adult tickets are $25, seniors 55 and up $20, and students and children $15. On Sundays, all tickets are $15 and on Thursdays, all tickets are $10. Call 898-9021.

Grace Diaz Tootle stars

The playwright:

Willy Russell also wrote Educating Rita and the musical Blood Brothers.

This show:

Shirley Valentine premiered in 1986 in Liverpool and two years later opened in London’s West End.

On Broadway:

The play opened on February 16, 1989 at the Booth Theatre, where it ran for 324 performances.

Movie version:

The 1989 film version starred Pauline Collins as Shirley and Tom Conti, Alison Steadman, Joanna Lumley, Bernard Hill and Sylvia Sims as some of the characters she simply referred to in the stage production.