For over two decades, actress Nicola Cavendish has famously portrayed desperate housewife Shirley Valentine, making a persuasive case with theatre audiences that it is never too late to boldly change their lives.
After cruel brushes with mortality in her personal life this year, the Vancouver performer is taking Shirley's advice to heart. A brain hemorrhage and the sudden death of her husband Michael Wilmot in July triggered profound soul-searching.
"The understanding of what it means to be alive one minute and dead literally the next, informs this play," says Cavendish. "It's important I hear its message."
That means her personal priorities will change in 2012 and her many fans in this country will be the losers.
"I want to be entertained myself, more than I want to entertain," she says plainly. It's a shocking statement from a great Canadian comedian who made her Broadway debut in Blithe Spirit in 1987 alongside Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Page and Blythe Danner. Although she has been celebrated for many brilliant performances, the 59-year-old University of British Columbia graduate is most associated with Shirley Valentine (over 600 performances), Willy Russell's feel-good monologue about a discontented Liverpool chatterbox who feels life slipping from her grasp.
Cavendish returns to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre today to reprise her signature role, which she first played here in 1992 when it became the company's first solo show ever to play the mainstage. After a stop at Theatre Calgary and then in Victoria, she intends to hang up Shirley's well-worn, grease-splattered apron for good.
"This is it, this is it," she says. "I think I need to step aside from theatre. I need to spend time doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do. For 35 years, theatre has taken all of my evenings, except one night off. I can count on two hands the number of times I've gone out to listen to a symphony or visit an art gallery."
The diabetic actress's health scare -- she was fortunate her subarachnoid hemorrhage occurred while speaking to 80 nurses attending a diabetes conference in a Vancouver hotel last May -- combined with losing her partner of 32 years less than two months later has made her more guarded about her precious time.
"There is an awareness that life is rushing by," she says, over the telephone from her family's home in the Okanagan Valley. "If you are not aware of how much time has passed, you must be equally not aware of how little time is left."
To some ironic degree she is indebted to RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper for asking her to reprise Shirley Valentine prior to her husband's death, she says.
"The play is an examination of the same road I'm been thrust upon," she says. "Doing Shirley Valentine is not entirely selfless. There is something in it for me. There's a parallel between the reality I'm living and what Shirley Valentine talks about.
"She learns that all she has is her life and we all only have our lives. If we are encumbered with things that make our lives less than wonderful then we have to do something about changing them."
Winnipeggers who saw her in the optimistic Shirley Valentine two decades ago will remember the plucky title character is trapped in household drudgery and a cheerless marriage. In a bid to escape her "little life," she runs off on an odyssey of salvation in Greece. Like Shirley, Cavendish feels she has to move, too.
"What I need to run to now is myself," says Cavendish, who last appeared here in 2003 as a lonely beachcomber in Martha at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. "That's the reality, to make myself stronger. The writing has been on the wall. This is a chance to hang in a little longer."
Cavendish finds the demands of theatre a slog, always has. That's most true when performing the 150-minute Shirley Valentine, in which she speaks all 16,000 lines, 70 more than even Hamlet utters. She is a little anxious as she approaches this enormous stage challenge for the first time since spending eight days in a neurological ward recovering from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.
RMTC recognized the considerable weight she bears with the show by bringing in Vancouver colleague Ellie King to spell Cavendish Saturday nights in order to save her from the physical and mental demands of two-show days.
"Two-show days are doable but I need to err on my own behalf," she says.
She's again hearing a whisper in her ear to write. The first time was in 1966, when her Grade 9 teacher was walking the classroom aisles, looking over the shoulders of students at work on their compositions. She leaned over Cavendish and quietly suggested she consider being a writer.
"There I was, 14 years of age, and her words were magic in my ears," she recalls.
Cavendish wrote a popular yuletide fable called It's Snowing in Saltspring in 1985, but has done little since. Now she has three projects on the go, all with personal connections. One is called The Inside, Outside Dog, a story about an aging lady and her pet that sounds a lot like Cavendish and her 14-year-old pooch, Chance. Good Grief encapsulates all she's learned about mourning since July. Another, A Couple of Babes, follows two women of different cultures and characters on a journey across Canada.
The immediate plan is to escape to the round writing hut her husband built for her near their humble cottage on Vancouver Island's Qualicum Beach. She says her answer to Shirley heading to Greece is to go to the cottage alone. Reminders of her husband are everywhere.
"I've yet to write anything in it yet," she says, "but it's calling to me hugely."
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Opens Thursday, to Jan. 28
Tickets: $27-$70 at 942-6537 or www.mtc.mb.ca