Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Theater Review: Calendar Girls -- Ivoryton Playhouse

The Calendar Girls at Ivoryton Playhouse. Photo courtesy of the playhouse.

The Seasons of Life and Love Provide Unexpected Images Throughout  the Year
By Lauren Yarger
The seasons of life can provide unexpected images throughout the year, but one group of British women uses that to their advantage to help a worthy cause in the US premiere of Calendar Girls at Ivoryton Playhouse.

Some local favorites, by way of England, Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard (who also directs the show) and Company Manager Beverley J. Taylor, star in Tim Firth’s stage adaptation of his screenplay (written with Juliette Towhidi) from the popular film by the same name (starring Helen Mirren) about a real-life group of Yorkshire women who pose nude for a calendar to raise funds to fight leukemia.

Good friends Annie (Hubbard) and Chris (Taylor) participate in programs sponsored through the Women’s Institute, the largest voluntary organization for women in the United Kingdom, under the priggish leadership of Marie (Victoria Bundonis). They meet in a church (designed by Tony Andrea, enhanced by lighting and projections designed by Marcus Abbott and Gaylen Ferstand respectively) and hear talks about the history of the tea towel, or the fascinating world of broccoli.

Their annual calendar featuring local churches and other scenes, doesn’t sell all that many copies.

When Annie’s husband, John (R. Bruce Connelly) is diagnosed with leukemia, their frequent visits to the hospital reveal a very uncomfortable setee in the waiting area. When the disease claims John, Chris and Annie’s other WI friends, Cora (Maria Silverman), Jessie (Maggie McGlone Jennings), Celia (Katrina Ferguson) and Ruth (Lily Dorment) rally round her to raise money to replace the piece of furniture.

Chris spearheads the idea of having the women pose nude to sell as many calendars as possible. Lawrence (Erik Bloomquist), an orderly who got to know John and Annie at the hospital, signs on as photographer offering suggestions about how the women can pose discretely, with their regular calendar offerings, like recipes for buns and cakes. While the idea of a risqué calendar being sponsored by the WI doesn’t go over well with Marie, or posh Lady Cravenshire (Vickie Blake), it does sell like hotcakes ( since the hot looking photos are stages with private parts hidden by cakes and other items) and brings unexpected and unwelcome fame to the group.

Chris becomes energized by the project and by getting publicity for it. She neglects her husband, Rod (David Edwards), and their florist shop. Her friendship is tested with Annie, who becomes more interested in the letters that are pouring in from women whose lives have been touched by the calendar.

The calendar opens up some wounds for Ruth, who reluctantly agreed to pose for the calendar as a means of hurting her philandering husband. Single mom Cora deals with some issues of morality and church, thanks to a hypocritical experience with her parson father. Upscale Celia hides her insecurities in materialism and drink and older, wiser, Jessie anchors the group with sound advice (Jennings brings quiet dignity and humor to the role and makes us realize there are some thought-provoking themes buried in the dialogue).

Unfortunately, those descriptive blurbs are about all there is to go on for character development in Firth’s play. The first act, which sort of gets us to the idea of the calendar, takes far too long. Yes, seasons pass before our eyes and John goes downhill really fast, but all of the action seems very slow-going and disjointed, almost like the film has been condensed to clips on the stage. It lacks focus and some of the dialogue cannot be understood adding to the confusion. Marie suddenly makes a personality transformation for no apparent reason….

Highlights are Taylor, who lights up the stage with humor and presence, and the funny scene, nicely directed by Hubbard, where the calendar shots are snapped (all are discreet and there is no nudity with which to contend.) The photos are sharply projected onto screens either side of the stage (Projection Design by Gaylen Ferstand) with a fun flashbulb sound effect (Tate R. Burmeister, design).

There’s an upside to the production at Ivoryton: the Playhouse is raising awareness for several cancer charities. A Cancer Survivor Night with half price adult ticket price for those individuals who have survived the challenge of cancer was held on June 3. Participating organizations include Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, Little Wonder, Valley Shore YMCA – Hope is Power Program and Middlesex Hospital‘s Center for Survivorship and Integrative Medicine.

“We are both Northern English lasses” says Hubbard, “I spent four years trying to get the rights to produce this wonderful play and though directing and performing at the same time will be a challenge, I knew I had to do it. These women are in our bones and it will be a rare treat to get to step in front of the curtain for a change.”

The Calendar Girls play through June 21 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets: $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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