Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Calendar Girls” last night was the kind of warm, fuzzy, tittering show that can ease the stresses of the outside world and calm anxieties of the unknown within. With a well-known, excellent Valley cast of strong women–strong actors all, they were out to triumph over a loose script as well as their characters’ central conflicts. They were also, notably, out of their knickers and bras.
“Calendar Girls,” by Tim Firth is a stage adaptation of the script Firth co-wrote for the 2003 wildly successful British movie by the same name. The movie is based on the true story of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute who dared turn their conservative, annual English calendar fundraiser of serene country bridges and quaint local crafts into an artfully nude display of the club members themselves. When one of their member’s husband died of leukemia, the women were motivated to shed previously less successful calendar efforts. They convinced one another they might cover the cost of a memorial to him with the proceeds from a racier, albeit much more threadbare in certain respects, calendar.
The story at Phoenix Theatre allowed for some humor and tenderness as we get to know the ladies and as they get to know one another. The real fun and laughter peaked, predictably, as the bashful onstage photographer’s flash exposed frame after frame of ladies who’d dropped their drawers, but not altogether their self-consciousness.
Though Americans tend to fancy themselves much less uptight than the proper English across the pond, the necessity to peel away layers to get at what’s important and worthwhile in one another seems no less foreboding and tricky. In both our daily practices and in the play in Phoenix Theatre’s hands, it’s not the clothing that gets in the way.
The script is not tight, piercing dialogue that bursts with golden threads of sparkling wisdom at every turn. But maybe that’s because these characters are people we know. Like people we brush up against daily, their truths are secreted away. People’s truths rarely tumble easily off the tongue.
Like the characters in this play, people look idiosyncratic while we plod away at getting to know them. In this case, it creates interest in the characters, but the relationships don’t flow seamlessly. The unhinged and halting nature affects the flow of Calendar Girls’ first act particularly. Until we’ve glimpsed enough of each character’s struggles, we don’t appreciate that those beautiful flaws are what draws us to them and makes us love them.
To that end, D. Scott Withers–one of the few characters who kept his clothes on–was the perfect husband, friend and terminal cancer patient as John, Annie’s husband. He was going to love everyone and everything within arm’s reach. He didn’t have the time or strength to cover or pretend otherwise. The genuine, frail gusto with which he exposed himself remained with the audience long after his character’s heart stopped beating in the first act.
By the same criterion, both well-revered Shari Watts as Annie and impressive if new Elyse Wolf as Annie’s best friend Chris were also dressed to the nines as the play’s central characters. From the first scene, Annie’s intimate moments with John were far more raw and naked than any upcoming nude photo of her would be. Likewise, the ache of her husband’s absence radiated from Watts throughout the evening. Wolf as Chris had different internal conflicts to wrestle while she outwardly cheerled the group’s stripping efforts. Her second act scene, while a letter she wrote was being read, was a beautiful peek at the character hidden beneath Chris’ bubbling enthusiasm and attention-seeking.
In like measure, notable supporting roles last night also shone. Twice, Cathy Dresbach as sweetly meek Ruth allowed her robe to fall when her perfectly-toned, timid nature finally burst. The surprises were as delightful to her as they were to us. Will Hightower’s flustered delivery of the young photographer along with several of the Women’s Institute ladies had similarly likeable or moving moments in the spotlight.
The combination of Adriana Diaz’s costumes (or lack thereof) and Tyler Welden’s props colored beautifully the kind of tricky, conservative/brazen message the show sported. The recurrent idea of sunflowers, so beautifully projected in the closing scene, could perhaps have been even better accentuated throughout the evening in subtle ways.
How it looks on the outside is different from how it is underneath. Cliché but true. Within the humor and good will last night, the story lobbied as hard for naked truth as it did for fun nudity.
It may not be explosive theatre. From the perspective of dramatic tension and arc, “Calendar Girls” may be lacking. But these ladies and their portrayals were honest and true to life. Brimming with accomplished talent and solid name recognition, Phoenix Theatre presented a properly worthy performance of gradually exposed, modern day, American calendar girls.