Theater

Sunflower Years: Calendar Girls celebrates friendship and female empowerment

(Sunflower Ladies) from left: Sylvia A. Bagaglio as Cora, Susan Martin as Ruth, Karen Gail Kessler as Chris, Heather Carey as Annie, Prreeti Tiwari as Celia and Lynn Price as Jessie star in The Community Players’ production of Calendar Girls

They’re not the pin-ups you’d expect to see adorning the pages of a calendar, but the women of Yorkshire’s Women’s Institute bare all for a worthy cause. Calendar Girls, currently being performed by Pawtucket’s Community Players under the direction of Pamela Jackson, is the stage adaptation of the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, based on actual events.

Calendar Girls gets off to a rather slow start, as the six women of the WI, under the stuffy and oft-questioned leadership of Marie (Annette LaBonte), go about their various seasonal activities: baking, flower-arranging, attending boring lectures, caroling and playing golf. The de facto leaders of the group are Chris and Annie (Karen Gail Kessler and Heather Carey), best friends and partners in mischief. The mischief, however, quickly takes a backseat, as Annie’s kindhearted husband, John (David Mann) is diagnosed with leukemia. Over the course of the year, his condition worsens, though the only evidence of this is his sudden reliance on a wheelchair in his final scene, when, mid-sentence, he abruptly rises from the chair and shuffles off this mortal coil — and the stage — in a blue light (the blue spotlights seem to be the weapon of choice for lighting designer Christopher Simpkins, who employs them in the second act as the women read excerpts of their fan mail in an effect that in theory is cool, but ends up making the sequence a bit choppy). Annie and then Chris take over for him, finishing the metaphor that sets the stage for the rest of the play: that women, like sunflowers (his favorite kind of flower), are at their most beautiful later in life.

Wanting to do something to commemorate John, inspired by his interrupted monologue, Chris and Annie come up with the idea to raise money for the hospital at which John was treated through the sales of their annual calendar. But instead of Yorkshire churchyards or bridges, the lackluster themes Marie has chosen, this calendar will feature the WI members posing nude — nude, mind you, not naked. The idea is met with mixed reactions. Trophy-wife Celia (Prreeti Tiwari) embraces the chance to strut her stuff and schoolteacher Jessie (Lynn Price) sees it as an opportunity to promote body-positivity in older women, while passive goody two-shoes Ruth (Susan Martin) declines to participate, only to show up at the last minute. They then get hospital porter and professional photographer Lawrence (Jacob David Santos) involved. 

The photoshoot itself, which closes out the first act, is probably the highpoint of the play, as each woman, after imbibing their share of liquid courage, disrobes and cleverly covers up their more sensitive areas with teapots or pastries. What makes this scene stand out, though, is the camaraderie between the women. The amount of trust and support in this cast is palpable, and it makes this scene feel all the more authentic.

The second act deals with the fallout of the calendar. Under Marie’s disapproving gaze, the calendar is a massive success and a media sensation. Their newfound fame causes a rift among the women: Chris, who has always craved the spotlight, gladly receives the attention at the expense of her personal responsibilities, including the flower shop she runs with her husband, Rod (Richard Griffin). Annie believes she has lost sight of what they set out to accomplish. Ruth, meanwhile, has the most evocative transformation over the course of the play, as she finds her voice and gains the courage to confront the woman with whom her husband is having an affair (Kiki Maples).

Calendar Girls is a refreshing tale of female friendship and body positivity for older women, the likes of which are rare in the entertainment industry. It shows that women are at their best when supporting each other rather than tearing each other down, a notion Celia expresses when comparing the WI to the higher-society golfing community where women talk behind each other’s backs. Though it may be easy to pass up Calendar Girls upon hearing its questionable premise, as director Pamela Jackson admits to having done initially, what lies beyond the nudity is female empowerment and a reminder that being past one’s prime is only a state of mind.

The Community Players’ production of Calendar Girls runs through Mar 1 at Jenks Auditorium located on Division St in Pawtucket across from McCoy Stadium. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm. For tickets, visit the communityplayers.org or call 401-726-6860.

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