It would be easy to mistake Lillian, the new show opening at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic on Saturday, March 5, for something it resembles but is not. This monologue spoken by an upper-middle-class British woman reveals the details of her brief affair with a younger man. So far, so Shirley Valentine, or Educating Rita, those popular Willy Russell comedies that send a positive message of self-renewal and affirmation. But look closer, and you’ll find that playwright David Cale is no Willy Russell, and his Lillian is not a Rita or a Shirley.

Nancy Travis | Credit: Courtesy

Lillian began as a performance piece for Cale, who played Lillian in 1998 dressed in his male street clothes and without makeup. New York Times critic Ben Brantley described that production as “an immensely appealing work that finds an ordering poetry in the seemingly banal.” 

For Nancy Travis, the distinguished actress and co-star of Fox television’s Last Man Standing, who will perform Lillian here, the role offers the opportunity to return to her first love, live theater. Travis said she looks forward to being able to “live with the character in front of an audience over time,” an experience that contrasts sharply with the stops and starts of shooting a network situation comedy. The story is “poignant and deep,” according to Travis, and the theme is that “people come into your life for a reason.” 

Lillian’s lover, Jimmy, jolts her out of a passionless marriage to an oil rigger, Keith, and takes her on a series of adventures, including a romantic amusement park ride and a sleepless night of camping. Through this process, Lillian finds that despite doubt and fear, it’s possible to take solace in the fact that everything we need we might already have. 

This edition of ON Culture was originally emailed to subscribers on April 26, 2024. To receive Leslie Dinaberg’s arts newsletter in your inbox on Fridays, sign up at


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