Shawn to reprise ‘Shirley Valentine’ for fifth time
By Lou Fancher
There’s cloying kindness…and there’s Kerri kindness.
Delivered onstage and off by veteran actor Kerri Shawn, the latter form is authentic, spirited and oh, so aware that life delivers hard knocks to everyone. That doesn’t mean Shawn wouldn’t warn a person his or her moral shoelaces are unravelling or that common sense is in jeopardy due to a narrow-minded outlook: She’s a mom, after all. Her kindness includes tough love perspective.
In rehearsal for her fifth reprisal of the title role in Willy Russell’s “Shirley Valentine” at Walnut Creek-based Center Repertory Company, Shawn cuts potatoes as if the knife is a hatchet. Shirley Bradshaw, the character Shawn brings to life in the two-hour, one-woman play, is a British housewife who resents her monotonous marriage and lower middle class lifestyle. To comfort herself, she drinks wine as if it is sunshine and dreams of escaping with her best friend who’s recently won a trip to Greece. Shirley goes and although her husband eventually joins her and their future together remains uncertain, it’s clear at the play’s she never resumes her humdrum life.
“It’s been 13 years since we last did it,” says Shawn, about performing the role again under the direction of George Maguire. “With the #MeToo movement, it’s entirely relevant. It’s a woman reclaiming her life; it’s about all of us. It’s also about men who carry waste around, about life bogging us down.”
Asked specifically about presenting the play that opens March 30 during a time when women and men are expressing independence from workplace sexual harassment, she says, “I think it’s fantastic and important that women and men speak out. It’s authentic, vital and I believe change will happen.”
Shawn is co-education director for Center REP and a resident actor with Fantasy Forum Actor’s Ensemble. Discovering theater while a student at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, she found her passion. After studying with Harvey Berman and Jim Kirkwood at Diablo Valley College, she earned a bachelor of arts in theater arts and speech from San Francisco State University. Forty-four years and more than 100 productions after her first professional role (Stella at Center Rep in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), Shawn has won seven Shellie Awards and a Dean Goodman Award, among other honors. In a survey of a half-dozen Bay Area theater people conducted by phone and email, “generous,” “warm,” “dedicated to the Bay Area theater scene,” are the most common terms and phrases applied to Shawn.
“Kerri is never acting,” says Maguire, whose resume includes television, film, Broadway and theater appearances and over 25 years (prior to his “pseudo-retirement” in 2012) as full-time theater instructor and Solano College Theatre artistic director. “She grounds a role in real people doing real things. There’s truth, honesty, heart, charm.”
This time, there’s also increased resonance. “We’re older,”
says Maguire. “The “How did I get here?” and awareness of the little time we have left: That’s what we’re experiencing. It’s ephemeral. Our (real) lives inform everything.” Because Shawn’s outward disposition is sunny, Maguire encourages her to push into Shirley’s multifaceted frustration. “There’s urgency and more anger directed internally; she’s not blaming everyone else for her life.”
Shawn at the same time faces the demons of a one-person show. “I told George I needed a full year to learn all the lines. It’s really scary. I come to every rehearsal after a lot of work at home.”
She carries a spiral notebook with text spoken by the 21 people she plays color coded with different highlighters. Photos and archival clippings help her remember locations and the play’s era.
“Every night I go home with (assistant stage manager) Joe Coe’s rehearsal notes on missing or twisted words. Each day, I have to put my anxieties and apprehension over in the corner when I come in.” Eating grapes and olives while delivering lines clearly during one scene is her greatest worry. Cooking eggs, she says, is tricky. “One time in a previous run the stove didn’t work, but I don’t think the audience knew.”
Audiences and even people within the profession are unlikely to know Shawn’s family history includes dark moments. “Death has changed me because I helped my parents die,” she says. “My dad had a massive cerebral hemorrhage that left him needing longterm care for four years and my mom had a nine-year journey with cancer.”
Shawn says she grew up within a home environment impacted by mental illness and addiction. “People assume I had a perfect life, but it wasn’t. My brother, who’s doing well now, he and my father too had mental health issues. I’ve carried weight around. Luckily, theater and the arts became a saving grace.”
Talking about death with her mother and roles like Shirley leave Shawn unafraid of life’s end. “My mother surrendered to it so it was actually beautiful. It made me braver because I realized how quickly and totally you can suddenly be not here. I’ve prioritized. I take time to stop and see sunsets, travel, eat well, keep mobility, laugh.
Theater, Shawn says, will always be a part of her life. “Even if I live in a care facility. I’ll be the one who’ll get people together to read a play or poetry aloud. If I can’t remember lines, that’ll be a clue to stop. I’m so grateful it’s been my world to live my bliss.”