By Will Broaddus
---- — John Fogle thought “Shirley Valentine” would please the audience at Salem Theatre Company.
“We have a lot of women who come here,” said Fogle, the company’s artistic director. “The majority of the decision makers who come here are women — they decide who goes where in cultural events.”
The middle-aged woman at the center of this play, by contrast, has little control over her life.
As “Shirley Valentine” opens, the title character is cooking dinner for her husband, who is rarely pleased with anything she does.
“I always said I’d leave him when the kids grew up,” she says in the first scene. “But by the time they’d grown up, there was nowhere to go. Well, you don’t start again at 42, do you?”
Valentine, who has always wanted to travel, is trying to decide whether to accept an offer to take an exotic trip.
She is the only character in the play, which was written by Willy Russell and was first performed in 1988, and she discusses her decision with the wall.
“I hate a life of talkin’ to the wall,” she says. “But I’ve been talkin’ to the wall for more years than I care to remember now. And I’m frightened. I’m frightened of life beyond the wall.”
While it underscores her loneliness and isolation, Valentine’s dialogue with the wall brings her closer to the audience.
“The audience is the wall,” said Lida McGirr, who plays Valentine. “They’re part of the play, and hopefully, they’re with you. A lot of what you’re doing is off the relationship you develop with the audience. We’re all going for a ride together.”
McGirr had her own moment of decision about 20 years ago, when she returned to the theater after raising her children.
She tried playwriting before getting back into acting and most recently appeared in “The Cemetery Club” at the North Shore Theatre in Winchester and in “Bully Dance,” staged by Argos Productions at Boston Playwright’s Theatre.
“Shirley Valentine” is the biggest role she has done, comparable only to another title role she appeared in, Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
“When I went back into the theater, I had taken a class at Southwick Studios, which Andrea Southwick ran out of Watertown,” McGirr said. “She would do a summer production every year, and was doing ‘Richard III.’ I said, I’ll give it a shot.”
One of the challenges in learning the part of Shirley Valentine — and one of the character’s main differences from Richard, the Duke of York — was her accent.
“If I used the complete accent, nobody would know what I was saying,” McGirr said. “I try to get a flavor of it. I listen to tapes, and I watch videos that have the accent to get the rhythm down. I went to a website about people who live in Liverpool. It’s the Jersey Shore of England.”
Fogle worked with McGirr last season when he directed her in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” and had her in mind when he chose to stage “Shirley Valentine.”
“She’s been around the Boston scene doing theater for years,” Fogle said. “She makes a wonderful Shirley Valentine.”
McGirr said she and Fogle are both admirers of the book “A Sense of Direction” by William Ball, which she described as “a layman’s philosophy of directing.”
“We share a lot of similar views on what the process should be,” she said. “So, working with John is a dream.”
While “Shirley Valentine” appeals to women, Fogle said everyone should be able to admire McGirr’s tour de force performance.
He chose the play to bring balance to the Salem Theatre Company’s season, which included a story about three male veterans of World War I, Tom Stoppard’s “Heroes,” a holiday comedy and an American classic in “The Crucible.”
While it contrasts with these plays in several respects, “Shirley Valentine” shares their ability to engage an audience, which must imagine the story that Valentine tells.
“You make it your own,” Fogle said. “The pictures are your own, and it’s fun. That’s the kind of theater I like to emphasize, the theater of the mind’s eye.
“It’s a play that occurs in the minds of the audience, and there is no richer place to be.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Shirley Valentine”
When: May 17 to June 7, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m.
Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem
Tickets: $25 general admission, seniors $20, students with ID $10, at www.salemtheatre.com