Calendar Girls, the third play of Lakeside Little Theatre’s 53rd season, has traveled an unusual path having first been a film, written by Tim Firth, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
The bulk of the story takes place in the church hall of the WI, or Women’s Institute, an organization founded in the early part of the 20th century to encourage women’s community involvement while the men were at war. Apparently, women throughout Canada, where it originated, and the United Kingdom still take part, making homemade jam and competing in sponge cake baking contests. Post-feminist it’s not.
We first meet our group of gals attempting to do Tai Chi – this is the 21st century, after all. Chris, played by Collette Clavadetscher, leads the unenthusiastic group with milking yak pose, but the ladies are having none of it. Nor are they terribly thrilled about listening to a talk arranged by Marie, played by LLT regular Georgette Richmond as a kind of Mother Superior of the club. No one seems to take kindly to Marie, but they take orders from her regardless. So, no one is too upset when Brenda, Susan Quiriconi, has to cut her broccoli presentation short due to a blown fuse.
The ladies respond more positively to the arrival of John, played by Greg Clarke, armed with his very special punch – after all the ladies do enjoy an afternoon tipple. John is the husband of Annie, Debra Bowers, and it is soon revealed that John has been diagnosed with leukemia. As the story evolves, John’s health deteriorates. Clarke convincingly plays a well-mannered man losing his battle with life. His death propels the play’s plot.
It is quickly established that Chris and Annie are best friends and enjoy a close relationship. The other women, Cora (Wendy Petersen); Celia (Lupita Campbell); Ruth, (Jean Llewellyn); and Jessie (Chris L’Ecluse) seem detached from one another, as if their lives only cross paths when they are at the WI. With the exception of Petersen, these actresses are making their debut appearances at LLT in this production.
After John passes away, Annie has the shocking idea of creating a nude calendar that the WI can sell, as they do every year to raise money for their organization. This calendar’s proceeds will go towards replacing the worn and weary settee friends and family frequent while loved ones receive their chemotherapy treatments at the local clinic.
The action picks up pace when, after convincing even the naysayers to pose for the calendar, the photo session begins. Newcomer Andrew Redfern provides a jolt of playfulness as Lawrence, the young man recruited to take photos ever so discreetly, a task he accomplishes with relish. Not all the ladies are skittish about baring it all. L’Ecluse’s Jessie, a former local high school teacher, is totally game and brings some levity to the proceedings. Petersen’s Cora, a single mother from a brief fling in her Heyday, fears her daughter’s wrath about posing nude. Llewellyn’s Ruth is the most apprehensive; despite knowledge of her husband’s infidelity, God is her anchor and He wouldn’t approve. Lastly, Campbell’s Celia wears her sexuality on her sleeve, making a nude calendar page of little consequence. Bower’s grief-stricken Annie has the greatest range and manages a depth of emotion that most reflects reality.
Calendar Girls is the directing debut of Candace Luciano, a veteran actor of nine LLT productions. Luciano may have been better served by directing a show with a smaller cast for her maiden voyage, rather than the challenge of giving life to so many characters. As written, the characters are wooden and amorphous, as though they could be anywhere in any story just saying their lines, and as a first-time director Luciano does not bring out real emotion in the performances. And, in all fairness, it’s not a great play. The WI setting seems anachronistic and the story’s climax comes far too soon, leaving a second act with nowhere to go.
Through the changing seasons all of the action takes place at the WI’s church hall, but the set, too, does little to help the lack of intimacy and camaraderie of the women. It is an expansive space that never encourages any demonstrative moments that women often enjoy and rely on, especially when a crisis is at hand. A cozy sofa, a quilt the ladies work on together, even a Wicca coven might have helped to unify this disparate group above and beyond convincing one another to strip for the camera.
Ultimately, all the ladies get on board, the calendar is produced and printed, their accomplishment a thing of pride and beauty. LLT cleverly embraced the play’s spirit to produce and sell a calendar of their own that raises money for the Pediatric Oncology Clinic for the treatment of childhood leukemia and lymphoma at the Hospital Civil Nuevo in Guadalajara as well as for some much-needed theater renovations.
In addition to the characters mentioned are Peter Luciano as Rod, Chris’s husband. Lady Cravenshire, played by Diana Rowland is seen briefly as the woman everyone is expected to impress. Lori Grant as Elaine makes a whirlwind appearance worthy of a few laughs and a bigger part and Pamela Johnson as Lynn makes her acting debut after appearing as a dancer in previous productions.
Beth Leitch stage manages and Bruce Linnen is assistant stage manager of the show. Set design and decoration is by Ruth Kear. Set construction crew includes Richard Bansbach, David Bryen, Earl Schenck, Bryan Selesky, Neils Petersen, Michael Koch, Jeff Kingsbury and Joel Smith. Set painting is by Ruth Kear, Joy Cook, Sheron Brackenbury and Corrine Kelly. Sandra Murr handled props while Kevin Leitch and Alan Bowers are responsible for lighting and J.E. Jack does sound. The stage crew includes Jeff Kingsbury, Peter Llewellyn and John Tompson. Johanna Clark and Marlene Syverson are wardrobe, Patsi Krakoff and Christine Bott dressers and makeup by Nancy Jessop, Neila Nazarko and Elizabeth Richards.
Calendar Girls continues through December 17. All shows are sold out, but you can call or email to be put on a waiting list.