Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan, The Bridges of Madison County and Kit's review of Le Switch
By now, the story behind Calendar Girls is fairly well known, by way of media coverage of the true events that are the basis of the play, the 2003 film based on those events, and the calendar itself, which in the course of ten years raised millions of dollars in support of Leukemia and Lymphoma Research in Great Britain. What made this calendar so popular and worthy of our attention? Its "girls" were middle-aged women photographed in the nude, though maintaining their modesty with strategically placed props. The story finally landed on stage in a play by Tim Firth, based on his screenplay (co-written with Juliette Towhidi) for the 2003 film. The stage version earned Firth the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Comedy.
Calendar Girls begins at a Women's Institute, or WI, chapter in rural Yorkshire. WI is an organization well over a century old with its roots in giving women tools and skills in such domestic pursuits as jam-making, knitting, baking, and vegetable gardening. The year is 1998 and our focus is drawn to six members of this particular WI chapter who have no interest in the traditional aims of the club: Annie, Chris, Ruth, Cora, Jessie and Celia. What keeps them coming is the comradery, support, and ribald sense of humor they share.
When Annie's husband loses his life to lymphoma, she and her best friend Chris want their WI chapter to direct their annual fundraising toward the purchase of a new settee for the hospital waiting room where they spent so much time over the past year. The WI customarily produced and sold calendars with photos of local barns, bridges, churches, and the like, raising sums too paltry to meet that goal. Annie and Chris come up with a brilliant alternative: photograph themselves and the others nude. As they see it, the WI calendars always focus on an aspect of the beauty to be found in Yorkshire. Why not focus on the beauty of the Yorkshire women? Not nubile young women, but women with lived lives. Supporting their idea is a statement John made before his death that Yorkshire women achieve their fullest beauty in maturity, comparing them to sunflowers.
Each of the women responds differentlyeager, aghast, uncertainbut as we know that the calendar was a reality, the drama is not in whether they will take part, but how they make their decision. The actual photo shoot is the highlight of the play, not only for the cleverness of each woman's pose, but the giddy sense of freedom and empowerment they exude upon the snap of the shutter.
The second act of Calendar Girls takes us through the resistance of WI leaders to the sale of this "alternative" calendar, the process of getting their calendar out to the public, ways in which new-found empowerment changes their lives, and tensions within the group as the calendar attains unimagined success. It leaves us on a high note, and at the play's end we are cheering not only for the fine performers on stage, but for the grit of the women they portray.
But oh, those performances really are wonderful. Director Mary M. Finnerty has assembled a top-flight cast and woven them into a well-tuned ensemble, projecting the sense, especially among the core group WI members, that they truly are tightly woven, life-long friends. We easily believe that they know everything about one another, as longtime friends through thick and thin.
Christina Baldwin plays Annie, showing us the loss and grief she suffers upon John's death, but also the mettle that enables her to push forward, directing her emotions into the calendar project. Charity Jones is Chris, Annie's best friend whose willingness to take on new ventures, sharp business acumen, and strong ego make her the perfect partner to push the calendar project forward, even when Annie has doubts. Shannon Custer is Ruth, the most reticent among the WI "girls," eager to have everyone's approval and trying desperately to believe in her wobbly marriage. Ruth goes through the greatest change, and Custer navigates that course with her trademark humor.
Jessie is the oldest among the women in years, if not in attitude. She is played winningly by Linda Kelsey, bringing out Jessie's wry wit and jaundiced view, while always staunchly supportive of the group. Laurel Armstrong plays Cora, who is estranged from her adult daughter, out of touch with her daughter's father and emotionally handcuffed by the expectations of her as a vicar's daughter. Armstrong conveys the restraints Cora feels, while giving her the strength to push forward. Carolyn Pool plays Celia, newest member of the WI circle. Celia uses her sexuality to project strength, which Pool easily embodies while also convincingly giving voice to the demons that trouble Celia.
Also standing out in the large cast are John Middleton as John, conveying a full heart and appreciation for life that explains why the women are willing to doff their clothing in his memory; Julia Cook, convincing as the stodgy and imperious head of the WI; and Ryan Colbert as the adorably bashful, but sharp-eyed photographer who sets up the nude photo shoot.
Most of the action takes place in the WI common room, on a serviceable set designed by Michael Hoover. By use of projections, the set effectively transforms to a hilltop rimmed by an ancient stone wall, on which John's beloved sunflowers are planted. MaryBeth Gagner's costumes bring out the individual personalities of each of the characters. Properties designer Abbee Warmboe had her hands full rounding up the items needed to provide a veil of modesty for the women. All of the actors speak in well-formed English accents, with credit to dialect coach Keely Wolter.
In all honesty, Calendar Girls is not an exceptional play, but it is a good play. Its characters each speak in their own true voice, with hearty humor throughout, and a sense of decency and courage pervades the work. With Finnerty's strong direction, an exceptional ensemble and a story that can't help but bring a broad smile to even the most dour of WI matrons, Calendar Girls is a safe bet to be one of the best shows of the summer.
Calendar Girls continues at Park Square Theatre on the Proscenium Stage through July 25, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military $10.00 discount; rush tickets, $24.00, available for unsold seats one hour before performance (cash only). A $2.00 facility fee will be added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Tim Firth; Director: Mary M. Finnerty; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: MaryBeth Gagner; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Musical Consultant/Arranger: Peter Vitale; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: D. Marie Long.
Cast: Laurel Armstrong (Cora), Christina Baldwin (Annie), Ryan Colbert (Lawrence), Julia Cook (Marie), Shannon Custer (Ruth), Anna Hickey (Elaine), Charity Jones (Chris), Linda Kelsey (Jessie), Bill McCallum (Rod), John Middleton (John), Carolyn Pool (Celia), Kory LaQuess Pullam (Liam), Karen Weber (Lady Cravenshire/Brenda Hulse).