Arlington — How far would you go in a good cause? Two British ladies and their friends are about to find out, stepping out of their comfort zone—and their clothes—to honor a husband and help a hospital in Theatre Arlington’s sweet and sassy production of Calendar Girls, Tim Firth’s stage adaptation of his popular 2003 movie.
We don’t have anything quite the equivalent of England’s Women’s Institute, a ladies club and self-improvement society in one—relentlessly respectable, and (seemingly) without a controversial bone in its collective body. Across the U.K., branches of “the WI” sponsor educational speakers, organize craft fairs and festivals, and support charities and community efforts of many kinds.
But when members of one WI branch in a small Yorkshire town want to “doff their kits”—take off their clothes—to pose for a fundraising calendar, they rattle tea cups from one end of the island to another. The goal is to raise enough money to replace the horribly uncomfortable sofa in the “relatives’ room” of the local hospital—a sofa that best friends Chris (Catherine Parkins Pronske) and Annie (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) get to know all too well when Annie’s husband John is there battling leukemia. And though “the girls” (and other naughty bits) are discreetly covered up by a variety of WI paraphernalia—balls of yarn, gardening gear, hymn books—it’s still a pretty out there thing to do.
Director Brandi Andrade, who taught theater and women’s studies at the University of Texas at Arlington for several years, gets some grand performances from her mostly female cast. Pyeatt and Pronske are a vibrant pair as lifelong buddies Annie and Chris—Annie calm and loving, Chris dramatic and rebellious, but each somehow just what the other needs. Even when the calendar project turns into a phenom, we’re pretty sure these two will be all right in the end. Randy Etheridge is tender and funny as John, Annie’s nature-loving and poetic husband. With these three performances giving the play a solid center of humor and heart, the other characters get a chance to display all their quirky colors.
Erin McGrew makes us smile as the shy, dithery Ruth, who heads for the door as Chris tries to explain how “nude” is different from “naked.” Vicki Caroline Cheatwood is sexy Celia, bored with her golf club life and happy to be the calendar’s star. Retired teacher Jessie (Barrie Alguire) is amused by the whole adventure, and the club’s pianist Cora (Cathy Pritchett in fine voice) worries about what her grown daughter may think.
Angela Wilson is properly proper and outraged as club chairwoman Marie, and Jane Willingham has a funny bit as the Guest Speaker from Hell. Alexis Walworth plays a tarty manicurist, Greg Phillips adds a “guy” note as Chris’ rough-edged husband Rod, and Austin Bender, a UTA junior, is wide-eyed as amateur photographer Lawrence, whose job caring for Annie’s husband in the hospital turns into something he never expects.
Designer Max Marquez gives us a drab meeting room of folding chairs and slide projectors—livened up by Cora’s piano and a portrait of the Queen. The setups for the photos are clever; is that considered costume—or props?
The play surprises us here and there: it isn’t a word-for-word recreation of the movie script, but includes some new lines and big laughs that catch us happily off-guard. Likewise, the production has moments entirely meant for stage and not screen—in particular, its handling of the passing (in this case, quite visual) of Annie’s much-loved husband.
If Calendar Girls is your cup of tea, you probably already know it. This is pleasant fun for a summer’s night—and if you don’t go home humming the Wi’s unofficial anthem “Jerusalem”…well, you’re just not paying attention.