When I learned that the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach was doing the stage adaption of Calendar Girls I knew I wanted to see it.
While we usually see films adapted from plays, Calendar Girls actually began as a movie in 2003, based on the true story of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute (WI) club that produces an “alternative” calendar as a fundraiser. The initial intent was just to purchase a new sofa for the waiting room of the local hospital, the same hospital where the husband of one of those women lost his battle with Leukemia. However, the calendar ended up selling so well they were able to fund a laboratory dedicated to Leukemia and Lymphoma research. Tim Firth, the author of the original screenplay, also adapted the story for the stage, as well as a later musical version entitled The Girls.
The set is mainly composed of five tall sections of stone wall with smatterings of ivy. The walls are easily moved and flipped to show a different stone pattern on the reverse side to create any number of settings, easily taking the action from indoors to outdoors. Set Designer Sandy Lawrence also cleverly inserted screens into each portion of wall to help reflect the full stage projections of the countryside throughout the show. The transitions of these pieces by the set crew are very tight and appear to be choreographed (always a good idea when moving big set pieces).
Amy Insley’s Lighting Design is lovely and, I assume, includes the projections. While generally not complicated, the moments where lighting is crucial are beautiful, particularly when showing John’s death and during the reading of the “fan mail.” The projections I mentioned carry the audience beyond stone walls to a Yorkshire hill at various times throughout the play, immersing the actors (as well as the audience) in the dappled light of the countryside. In the beginning of a few scenes a lot of the action takes place while the stage is still dark. It’s not clear whether this was a choice by the designer, the director, or just a technical snafu, but these moments definitely left the audience scratching our heads.
The staging was for the most part excellent, but the notorious LTVB thrust stage did claim a few moments. For the WI meetings in the church hall, the tendency to block action and set pieces downstage interfered with the sightlines from the far left and right of the house. When the view of an actor is obstructed, the words coming out of their mouths generally are as well. That combined with the Yorkshire accents beautifully cultivated by Dialect Coach Shirley Hurd makes some of the dialogue difficult to make out for those areas of the house during those same scenes.
Director Kay Burcher has a talented cast to begin with, but it is no doubt due in part to her direction that the actors manage to so aptly convey the vast array of emotions that the production calls for. For starters, Cora (Elizabeth Dickerson) is confined to one of those kneeling scooters due to an injury sustained by the actor. One would never know the part was not written that way. Burcher’s blocking blends it in flawlessly and it appears to be just another character choice. Dickerson brings just the right amount of sass to the vicar’s daughter/church organist. Some of my favorite one-liners are from Cora. There is something about Dickerson’s combination of accent and facial expression that makes her quips that much funnier.
Annie (Suzanne Genz) has her moments of comedy as well, but being the widow her character draws more on sadness with a few smart remarks here and there. Genz conveys this sadness perfectly, from the death of her husband, John, through the “fan mail” and right up until the final scene. That kind of emotion can be draining to portray, but Genz never lets it show and keeps up her character’s passion throughout.
Passion is what the character of Chris (Nancy Bloom) is all about. Bloom’s seemingly endless energy and self-deprecating tenacity has the audience in love with Chris from the get-go. The calendar is Chris’ brain child and she leads the group from the beginning, with no small amount of persuasion in order to get the other ladies to join in. It’s this good-natured scheming that Bloom portrays so well, even when the motives of her character begin to seem questionable.
The character of Ruth (Mary Lou Mahlman) needs the most persuading, and in the end her agreement isn’t due to Chris’ cajoling at all. Mahlman is the perfect meek, eager to please Yorkshire wife… until she’s not. The initial timidity displayed by Mahlman makes her transformation into a devil-may-care spitfire of a woman all the more substantial, and hilarious.
Jessie (Ann Heywood) is, from the very beginning, the firecracker that Ruth eventually becomes, veiled behind the refinement of a proper English lady. That is not to say Jessie is not a lady, she’s just a lady on her own terms, and Heywood’s deadpan delivery of the more outrageous of Jessie’s remarks strikes that balance.
Celia (Janet Maddox) has the money and connections such that she doesn’t have to pretend at niceties… except on the golf course. Though she is early on identified as a “trophy wife,” Maddox quickly fleshes out her character as more than just a pretty face. Celia’s ignorance on some matters is a source of humor, but it’s what she does know that makes her character so funny. She knows men and has no problem using that knowledge. She also knows a bit about society, being forced to move through its circles to pursue her golf hobby. And yet, Celia fits right in with the Yorkshire women who are so different from herself. Another complex character brought to life by another skilled actor.
While his time on stage is relatively brief, John Cauthen’s portrayal of John also deserves mention. John (the character) is the inspiration for the whole scheme, and in his limited appearances on stage, Cauthen earns the same love for his character from the audience that is felt by the ladies of the WI. With the same Yorkshire wit as the rest of the cast, but with such a sincere admiration for the women around him, you believe every word when John tells the audience that “the flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire… the last phase is always the most glorious.”
Marie (Kathy Strouse) and Lady Cravenshire (Carolyn Collings) are the stiffer foils to the laid back ladies of the calendar. Being such a foil takes no less effort than the roles they play opposite, and sometimes more. The ladies of the calendar (I’m making that a phrase now) are free to chuckle at their own humor more often than not. Strouse and Collings must never be amused, while at the same time setting up the scenes for the other women. Knowing the comedic abilities of both these ladies, it was interesting to see them play the straight woman, and with such success.
Lawrence is the last foil to the “Ladies of the Calendar” (told you). Not through his disapproval or lack of humor, but by his discomfort and embarrassment. Connor Norton brings the perfect balance of passionate artist and mortified former pupil to the role of Lawrence, and the look on his face upon revelation that he is in fact photographing Jessie, his former teacher, nude nearly stopped the show with laughter.
So, a few technical issues, and the curse of the thrust stage are really the only criticisms, and the technical issues may be non-issues by second weekend. The story makes it difficult for this production not to do well as everyone loves a good comedy. But when you add to the script the caliber of acting and directing this show possesses, the well-oiled machine of the scene changes, and the elements of design, this is a show you should not miss.
P.S. The “Ladies of the Calendar” have produced their own calendar available for purchase at the theater. Proceeds go to LTVB and Leukemia research.
Those calendars are also available online, and I totally just bought one.
Calendar Girls runs thru June 4 at LTVB. Fri & Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30. Although seating appears to be very limited for those Sunday shows, and they’ve added a 2:30pm matinee this Sat 5/27, so I guess the show’s selling pretty well. Tix: $18 Reg, $15 Students, Seniors, Active Military, $7 Kids under 12 (but I mean, seriously come on.) Call (757) 428-9223 or click here to reserve your seats, and you better do it fast.