Perfectly Imperfect Women’s Stories in 20th Century Blues

by Gretchen Wirges

I had been perusing the playbill for 20th Century Blues while waiting for the show to begin. I noticed the image of four women, standing in solidarity, walking toward a camera. The sounds of Motown and 70’s anthems played in the background. As the lights rose on Invisible Theatre’s season-ending production, my feminist spirit was ready to see what playwright Susan Miller, and directors Susan Claassen and Fred Rodriguez had in store.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, and  Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, and Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The play begins with Danny, a woman in her 60’s, delivering a TEDTalk about her photography. Just as we’re about to see a retrospective of photos of her closest confidants over the 40 year span of their friendship, the scene transitions to four months prior, when she and her friends Sil, Mac, and Gabby were gathering to take their final photo.

I felt myself exhale more and more as each woman entered the set, styled as a New York City loft. Designed by James Blair and Susan Claasen, the set looked polished and professional. It was believable, without being over the top.

Having met 40 years ago, the characters have an obvious history and chemistry that evolves with the play. While discussing the photos, the women take us on a journey through their relationships, and 40 years of politics and cultural struggle. They flit from Civil Rights to Transgender issues to the ERA to the Black Lives Matter movements. At first, I was frustrated that they covered too much, instead of spending more meaningful time on one issue. But what I realized is that these women are a cultural timeline personified. They take us on a journey through that timeline in a way that also allows us to see their triumphs, fears, and desires.

It’s not often we get to see four older, diverse female actors on stage together with meaningful, powerful dialogue. The women talk to each other with a directness that we rarely get to witness. They talk about sex and race and gender and their aging bodies with brutal honesty.  One of the characters, Mac, played by To-ree-nee Wolf, is African American, and a lesbian. Mac often calls out the others for privilege and for asking her speak for “her people”. A few of the topics discussed made the audience cringe just a bit, which I absolutely loved. The playwright didn’t care if the honesty pushed buttons. In the time of #metoo and #timesup, we need to tell women’s stories without abandon or apology. 

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

While some of the dialogue felt a bit rushed at times, I attribute that to being one of the very first performances. I was impressed with the cast as a whole.  Molly McKasson (Bess) and Cole Potwardowski (Simon) were brief parts of the story, but gave us some touching moments. Geri Hooper Waram (Danny) delivered an earnest performance, and concludes the play with a powerfully delivered monologue. PJ Peavy (Sil) was able to transition deftly between her great comedic timing and the ability to ground the tender moments elegantly. Susan Cookie Baker (Gabby) gave the production a lightness with her humor and affable portrayal of this quirky character. And then we have Wolf (Mac), who in my opinion, was the standout of the show.  Wolf took my breath away. She was acting down to her fingertips. Her physicality, facial expressions, and patience on stage was such a beautiful thing to watch. She was the one that truly made the production come alive with her obvious aura of heart and grounded acting.

I felt strong connections in the cast between the women, especially between Sil and Gabby, and between Danny and Mac. I think that as the performances evolve and the run of the show continues, the chemistry between all four women will deepen and provide even more believability to the relationships between the characters. One of my favorite moments was when all four women had a mini-dance party filled with laughter and a nod to their long history.

The importance of these friendships and their conversation throughout 20th Century Blues is expressed beautifully during one of my favorite moments of the play. Danny tells the women, “You’re rock and roll, the space launch, civil rights. The decades that chronicle the most sweeping changes in everything. Style. Music. Literature. You’re my sundial, my alphabet, my guide to better living. You’re my memorial to all that.”

This play isn’t perfect but I’m able to overlook the imperfections to see women of color, women over 50, women who are queer, women who are artists, women who are afraid of loss, women who are struggling with their bodies, women who are celebrating their bodies, and women who just plain love and support each other.

20th Century Blues is playing at Invisible Theatre now through May 5th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.invisibletheatre.com or by calling their box office at 882-9721.

Sweet Calendar Girls

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 cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by Gretchen Wirges, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

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.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by the Pima Community College department of theatre, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

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.