by China Young
Calendar Girls by Tim Firth is a sweet story about love, friendship, and female empowerment. But when I say female empowerment, I don’t mean radical feminism, bra burning, or Women’s Marches. The production, currently performing at St. Francis in the Foothills, offers its audiences a sweeter, subtler version of girl power. Although, it does still involve the removal of bras.
The story, based on real life events, takes place in England. Annie (played by Gretchen Wirges), is married to John (played by Mike Manolakes), a delightful man that everyone in her women’s group (WI) adores. John quickly loses a battle with Leukemia, and the women all share the grief of his loss. However, this grief is quickly transformed into a fundraising project. Annie’s friend and fellow WI member, Chris (played by Colleen Zandbergen), strategizes a way to honor John by raising funds for a new settee in the local hospital waiting room in his memory. She hopes to accomplish this through the the sales of the annual WI calendar. In an effort to make the calendar more appealing than usual, Chris convinces the women to pose nude, using various objects to hide behind. The women debate over their fears and excitement about the idea, but their enthusiasm, comradery, and mutual love of John win over and they decide to do it. The calendar turns out to be a hit, giving the women tons of public exposure, in more ways than one. However, fame does what it does best and eventually leads Annie to question Chris’s true motives for helping John, and their friendship falters.
I decided to Google the true story behind Calendar Girls and discovered that there was in fact a schism of friendships that took its toll on the actual group of women. There remains a permanent split, with some more in the public eye than others. The fracture of trust between Chris and Annie mirrors this real-life split. Despite the real Calendar Girls being unable to make amends, this production leaves the audience with feelings of warmth and love.
First, I’d like to note that out of the 20 people listed in the program, 14 of them were women with 9 on stage and 5 off stage, including a female director, Samantha Cormier, and female producer, Cecilia Monroe. Though the men were fewer in number, they were essential in helping the production bloom and are certainly not discounted. The only thing that would have elevated it would be more ethnically diverse representation. Director Samantha Cormier notes that the production is “another example of how women need to help each other out and be there for each other.” She is absolutely right, especially when it seems as though women have a tendency to see each other as threats instead of kindred spirits. This story is about the power of coming together for a cause that is important. In that way, it’s much like the Women’s Marches and can be used as a tool for change. For me, those protests promoted awareness of the intersectionality of women and minorities, and this show provides the perfect vehicle to share the same message through theatre.
Of course, sometimes a play is just a play, but as an artist, I always appreciate when a much larger message is presented profoundly within the simplicity of a beautiful show like this. Even so, this cast represents the essence of community and the power that love and kindness can have on all of us. Not to mention how vulnerable it must have felt being literally naked in front of an audience. Their encouragement of one another to fearlessly liberate themselves was truly powerful. This production reminded me of the strength and power that women can have to change the world through simply supporting one another.
Cormier and her cast create a fun and high energy environment that envelops the audience, literally. Many entrances were from the back of the house, inviting the audience to be a part of the action. To further enhance that quality, the stage was set up as a thrust with audience on three sides. While there were often enough people on the stage to provide nice stage pictures from all angles, I felt there were lost opportunities to take advantage of diagonal angles when fewer characters were on stage or when one character took focus. I also found the high energy of the women to sometimes be a bit chaotic and in need of a little more focus. All that said, the joy the performers had with this show and the heart that they brought to it overshadowed those few technicalities.
Gretchen Wirges as Annie was a pillar of this production. She grounded herself and her character beautifully. Even in the moments she wasn’t speaking or taking center stage, you could sense her internal life holding its own. She had moments of vulnerability that wrecked my heart, as well as moments of strength and fortitude that I could admire. The other “Calendar Girls” included Colleen Zandbergen, tragically convincing as she channeled Chris’s hubris, Ellie Vought, bringing a ton of fun and sass to her character Celia, Sue Bishop, giving Ruth a genuine innocence that turns rebellious, Pat Timm, delivering unapologetic bluntness as Jessie, and Nancy French with her skilled piano playing and hilarious punchlines.
The cast is rounded out by Jan Aalberts Waukon, Ina Shivack, Naima Boushaki, David Zinke, and David Gunther, all of whom did more than their share to create a production that is sure to lift your spirits. In lieu of revealing the most touching moment of the production, I encourage you to take the opportunity to experience the magic it summons, making every single person in the room feel loved and appreciated. I left humbled and inspired by the mark it left in my heart.
Calendar Girls runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3:00pm through March 24th. You can purchase tickets online at www.artmeetsheart.com or by phone at (520) 329-2910.