Review: “Calendar Girls” at Greater Boston Stage Company

Ashley DiFranza

  • Boston Theatre Critic

“Calendar Girls,” by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, marks Greater Boston Stage Company’s last show of their eighteenth season, and is quite the uplifting note to go out on. Based on a true story, this show has been adapted to the stage from the Miramax motion picture of the same name, and tells the story of a group of ladies in a Women’s Institute organization in Yorkshire, England who decide to raise money for leukemia research through the selling of a nude calendar. The catch? The calendar features these women themselves, who are by no means the young model-types that one may come to expect in such calendars, as the art. Soon the project, which starts in memoriam to one of the women, Annie’s, late husband, turns into an opportunity for her best friend Chris, a failing florist, to finally find her place in the spotlight. Yet as the powerful impact this small act of charity has made becomes clear to these women, they are suddenly forced to evaluate their own actions and their place in one another’s lives, leaving them as exposed emotionally as they are on each calendar page.

At the heart of this play is an important message about how a small act of kindness can go a long way, a theme further emphasized by Greater Boston Stage Company’s partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. It is this profound concept that director Nancy E. Carroll credits to drawing her to the script in the first place, and one which is both ever-present in this production and punctuated nicely by moments of heartwarming comedy.

The most notably comedic scene in the play is the one in which each of the women first model for their partially-nude photographs, covering themselves with household items ranging from balls of yarn to teapots, and posing against the backdrop of doing otherwise very ladylike tasks. From the shots of liquor the women take to psych themselves up for the photography session, to the unveiling of their hilarious poses, this scene is easily one of the most whimsical in the play, and earns a plethora of well-deserved laughs from the audience.

 Courtesy Nile Scott Shots)

Courtesy Nile Scott Shots)

Yet Carroll and her cast’s ability to depict the scene as one purely of comedy is a true accomplishment, given that nudity, even at this partial level, is a theatrical element which can run the risk of taking an audience out of a story when handled poorly. That is not the case in this production; when the women are nude the audience never fears that something will go wrong on stage, or even stops to worry about the comfort level of those involved. This is to the credit of the intricate choreography of the dressing and undressing, and the clear level of trust established between these women. With these tools, Carroll has managed to create a scene that the audience is able to just sit back and enjoy for what it is—a colorful showcase of these well developed characters.

In fact, much of the success of this production is correlated to Carroll’s extremely talented cast, which is made up of seasoned actors who each excel at carving out a place for themselves in what could appear on paper as an overwhelmingly character-heavy script.

Maureen Brennan’s portrayal of Annie, for example, depicts a woman struggling with the loss of her husband while still trying desperately to find the humanity and silver lining in such a painful situation. The humor and light Brennan holds in her eyes at the beginning of the play, before her husband John (Sean McGuirk) passes, is still present alongside the more raw emotions she experiences after his death, providing a powerful and encouraging message to audiences about positivity and human strength in face of tragedy.

Meanwhile, Karen MacDonald’s Chris, the other half of the duo behind the idea for the nude calendar, is a force to be reckoned with in this production. Alongside her use of humor, MacDonald has developed a character that feels incredibly real, whether she’s supporting her best friend through a tough time or reflecting on her own flaws. It is as much Chris’ journey in this production as Annie’s, and the pair does a very nice job of working off one another to depict a realistically imperfect but loving friendship.

These are not the only standout performances in this production, however. Sarah deLima delightfully plays the role of Ruth, an adorable older woman who has spent her entire life following the rules and is finally ready to break free. deLima’s sweet demeanor and radiant energy have audiences won over from the moment she steps on stage in an Easter Bunny costume, and she manages to only gain audience investment as her character goes on her own journey towards self worth. Similarly, Bobbie Steinbach stands out among the crowd, with her hysterical portrayal of Jessie, a retired school teacher whose brash attitude is clearly a result of years spent dealing with rowdy children. Earning many of the heartiest laughs from the audience, Steinbach’s performance is filled with perfectly rough edges and tactfully dry humor.

Another fantastic performance is given by Kerry A. Dowling (Cora), who is able to showcase her beautiful singing voice throughout the production, adding a lyrical layer to this word-heavy script. What’s more, Mary Potts Dennis’ Celia beautifully contrasts the other women in the group with her unique balance of silliness and formality. Rounding out this talented cast are Jade Guerra (Elaine/Liam), Nael Nacer (Lawrence), Kathy St. George (Lady Cravenshire/Brenda Hulse), Michael Kaye (Rod) and Cheryl McMahon (Marie), and there is truly not a weak link among them. Each uniquely contributes to both the hilarity and heart in this story, sculpting the world of the play into one which is brimming with life.

The only flaw to be seen in this production is the play’s innate tendency to read like a movie rather than a story made for the stage. This is primarily a flaw of the script, but one which unfortunately carries over into certain segments of this piece, as well. One example of this is the use of blackouts between scenes, which read so conclusive to the action at hand that audiences actually feel the impulse to clap between them, sensing this notion of finality. Similarly, at times the transitions between scenes feel rushed and unclear, especially when the time that passes between each one ranges from full seasons to just a few days. It is apparent that Carroll has tried to tie together these disjointed scenes into something a bit more cohesive—with music in some cases or clearly established seasonal costuming in others—but it would have been nice to see a more innovative approach to smoothing these segments into one unified story.

Still, this is a production that warrants a trip to Stoneham, if not for the genuine story and heartfelt performances of this stellar cast, then for the productions’ partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an incredible organization that is aiding in the fight against cancer. Company members stand in the lobby collecting donations after select productions, making it easy for audiences too to take a small act of kindness and turn it into something that has the ability to improve the lives of millions.

 

 “Calendar Girls” runs through June 17th at Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets visit www.greaterbostonstage.org or contact the Box Office at (781) 279-2200. Greater Boston Stage Company is located at 295 Main Street in Stoneham, MA