After waiting two long years due to the pandemic, “Calendar Girls” by Tim Firth, produced and directed by Connie Ross, opened triumphantly on March 18 at Silhouette Stages in Slayton House. The story revolves around several middle-aged women in Yorkshire, England who are members of the Women’s Institute or W.I. The play is a comedy based on a true story when in 1999, eleven W.I. members posed nude for a calendar to raise money for the Leukemia Research Fund. (The W.I. has been around for over 100 years and tied to the suffrage movement.) The story was turned into a film in 2003, starring two grand dames of British cinema, Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
Annie (Julie Press) is dealing with the illness of her husband, John (Russell Wooldridge). Her best friend, Chris (Debbie Mobley) runs a flower shop with her husband, Rod (Jeff Dunne). Chris is flamboyant and a bit of a social rebel. Annie is one of those strong people who manages to cope with the stresses stemming from John’s leukemia and his treatments.
…a perfect play to reopen Silhouette Stages’ live performances…an excellent reason to get out of the house again and see fine theatre.
The plot centers on Annie and Chris’ friendship and their desire to replace a very uncomfortable settee in the family waiting room of the local cancer treatment center. Their W.I. group decides the best way is to do their own “nudie” calendar with the members of their group as the models. Chris and Annie are aided by their friends, Cora (Cheryl Campo), a church organist; Jessie (Andrea Ostrowski Wildason), a local teacher; Celia (Ande Kolp), a flamboyant golfer who is also chafing under the stuffy social rules of the upper middle class of Yorkshire; and Ruth (Tatiana Dalton), a timid woman a little bit too accommodating and eager to please. The Women’s Institute is led by Marie (Suzanne Young) who is very proper, inflexible and, naturally, does not approve of the idea.
The success of the play hinges on the two actors who play Chris and Annie. Mobley’s portrayal personifies Chris from the opening when we see her teaching her own form of Tai Chi, then later while she is steering the group through posing for the calendar and to the end when she comes to face her own flaws. Press creates a wonderfully empathetic Annie. Most of us have had to deal with a family member or friend with cancer. Press’s Annie tugs at our hearts without getting maudlin.
Wildason’s teacher with a wild streak is one of the more humorous characters, although a bit more subtle than Chris or Celia. We have no trouble believing that this teacher is willing to bare herself for a cause. The scene where she reveals to the photographer, Lawrence (Robert Howard), that he is a former student of hers, is one of the funniest spots in the play.
Cora is played beautifully by Campo who is the not only a church organist, but the daughter of a minister. Campo reveals the character’s past slowly to the audience as a metaphor of her decision to do the calendar. In addition, we are treated to her wonderful musical talent on the piano and her beautiful voice, whether singing the W.I.’s anthem, “Jerusalem,” or doing a bit of jazz.
Kolp’s Celia is probably the one woman least changed by the experience. Kolp brings depth to the character as she opens up to the others about her own feelings of being a square peg in a round hole. Kolp also brings a sexuality to Celia that underscores Chris’.
Dalton walks the tightrope of comedy and farce. Her performance keeps her character from falling into a stereotype. Ruth goes through the most emotional change in the play and it is a truly sensitive performance.
Wooldridge’s Johns definitely tugs at your heartstrings, most profoundly in his scene with Annie as he talks about his love of sunflowers. There were many teary eyes in the house.
Young is also very credible as the uptight Marie. She is not a mean woman just a woman without insight into herself or others. Young captures a woman caught in the web of British snobbery.
Dunne plays the supportive and witty husband of Chris. His comedic timing was just right in the scene right before the ladies disrobe. Howard, the bemused photographer, grabs his own share of laughs. His performance added much to the fun.
The rest of the supporting cast also provided plenty of comic relief—Brenda (Terry Chambers Muldoon), the speaker who wants is to give a lecture on broccoli; Lady Cravenshire (Kathy Marshall), the dowager who financially supports the W.I.; Elaine (Mary Guay Kramer), the floozy Spa Lady; and Liam (Neal Townsend), the television producer. They are all neatly drawn characters.
The staging of this play is most critical to its success. Hats off to Connie Ross! Her rich experience as a director and choreographer pay off. The ultimate scene when the women disrobe discretely in front of a live audience is a big feather in Ross’ cap. I also appreciated how she visually shows the friendship of the two women and the tenderness between Annie and John.
Set designers, Rebecca Hanauer and Douglas Thomas, and set decoration/dressing by Bill Pond and Jessie Krupkin, with costume design by Lynn Kellner, allowed the difficult staging of the women’s revelations to work smoothly. The backstage costume changes are quick and unnoticeable. The whole effect was wonderfully coordinated. A nod to Dana Bonistalli, the stage manager, who kept all the props moving seamlessly during the many scene changes.
Charles Danforth’s lighting design and Ethan Hogarty’s sound design compliment the acting and directing, as well as the work of their fellow designers.
My husband spent a great deal of time conversing with a Yorkshire man who was very impressed with the accents. So some of the applause goes to Claire Sherman, the dialect coach, and the actors.
“Calendar Girls” is a perfect play to reopen Silhouette Stages’ live performances. It is an excellent reason to get out of the house again and see fine theatre. You will laugh out loud but also find it a moving story—an image of true friendship and snapshot of individuals who understand that helping those in need can be life fulfilling.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: This play is for mature audiences due to partial nudity and language.
“Calendar Girls” runs weekends through April 3, 2022 at Slayton House (in the Wilde Lake Village Center), 10400 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets and information, go to their website. Even if you cannot attend a performance, you can purchase a 2023 calendar, just like the characters created in the play. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. To order, click here.