“Calendar Girls” Makes Its US Debut at Ivoryton

Photo by Anne Hudson

Photo by Anne Hudson

By Karen Isaacs

It’s not only the major regional theaters that do world and US premieres.  Right now Ivoryton Playhouse is presenting the US premier of the stage version of the popular British movie Calendar Girls through June 21.

You may remember the 2003 comedy about a group of middle-aged women who, to raise money for the local hospital, decide to put out a calendar featuring tasteful and discreet pictures of them posing “au naturel” or at least partly “au naturel.” It was based on an actual occurrence and led to many similar projects.

Thr play made its debut in 2008 and has played London’s West End (its equivalent of Broadway) as well as touring extensively.  While it has been in Canada, this is its US premier.

The play itself has some awkwardness.  At times it pushes the maudlin factor, minimizes the gentle humor and has some very clunky dialogue. This is not crisp, brisk writing and don’t expect sophisticated dialogue.

The play follows the movie pretty closely.  In a small English village, the ladies of the Women’s Institute — a national volunteer organization — raise funds each year with a calendar featuring photos of local attractions, churches, bridges, etc.  John, the husband of Annie, is diagnosed with leukemia and his treatment does not bring promising results.  The women rally around Annie and decide they want to raise money for a new settee for the visitors room at the local hospital.  Annie and her friends have spent many hours on the lumpy and uncomfortable sofa.

Annie and her best friend Chris draw on some words that John had said about flowers — how the most beautiful part of their lives is when they flower which is also toward the end of their life cycle.  So the women decide to celebrate the beauty of middle-age.

Not all of the women are totally enthusiastic but Annie and Chris convince them.  The plan is to photograph each woman discreetly posed with some aspect of the activities of the Women’s Institute — arranging flowers,  baking, making jam — very domestic activities.

Of course, the local chair of the organization is aghast but eventually and reluctantly agrees to the plan.  The movie then followed the shooting of the photos, the sensation that the calendar causes, the publicity that descends on the group,  culminating in a trip to Los Angeles to appear on a late night talk show.  In the process the relationship between Annie and Chris deteriorates as each questions the other’s motives.

The only major change in the play is that LA is eliminated.  But the point about how notoriety and fame can turn everyone’s head is the same.

Ivoryton has mounted a production that I am sure will improve the more the cast works together.  Right now it drags a bit and there are some weaker performances.

Kudos to scenic designer Tony Andrea who has created a set that typifies a small town meeting room.  The outdoor scenes are more problematic, using projections and a curtain that looks as though it needs serious ironing.

The performers who kept my attention the most were Cora, played by Marie Silverman,  Jessie played by Maggie McGlone Jennings and Celia, played by Katrina Ferguson.  Cora is a single mom with problems with her teenage daughter and is also not only the daughter of a minister but the church organist.  Silverman brings us a character that is multidimensional and you can feel her anxieties and fears.  Jennings plays the oldest of the calendar girls, Jessie, a retired school teacher.  Katrina Ferguson plays Celia, the bored housewife who finds the WI women a welcome relief from the stuffy, rule-laden golf club.  You sense a despair in Celia.

Jacqui Hubbard, Ivoryton’s artistic director both directs and plays Annie, the woman whose husband’s death is the catalyst for the entire project.  Perhaps she was too involved with the very good direction to fully develop her character.  Unfortunately, she blends into the scenery frequently.  You just don’t connect or care about her.

Beverly J. Taylor plays Chris, who is really the lead role.  In the film, it was Helen Mirren. Chris is both brash and bossy but you must sense her inner life which is more insecure. You also have to feel how she becomes totally in charge and infatuated with fame. Plus, you need to see her final acknowledgement of her infatuation.  Taylor manages much of this but not all of it though her performance will undoubtedly deepen during the run of the play.

The three men are each good though their roles are limited.  R. Bruce Connelly portrays John as man with a healthy perspective on life and death.  David Edwards plays Rod, Chris’ husband. In his few scenes he too hits the mark.  Erik Bloomquist, is also good as the hospital worker turned photographer for the project (Lawrence) displaying the appropriate sense of awkwardness.

Calendar Girls is an enjoyable evening particularly for those with fond memories of the movie.

It is at Ivoryton Playhouse through June 21.  For tickets call 860-767-7318 or invorytonplayhouse.org.

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