Saturday, March 11, 2023

"Calendar Girls" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

Just in time for Women's History Month, Lakeshore Players Theatre is bringing us the true story of a group of women in the UK who bared it all in a calendar to raise money for cancer research after one of the women lost her husband to the disease. Calendar Girls is a story of female friendship and support, of ordinary women defying expectations, taking a risk, and making a difference. It's funny and poignant and a little risqué, with a genial cast that makes you root for these women and their friendship. See it in the beautiful Hanifl Performing Arts Center in White Bear Lake now through March 26.

A group of women in a village in Yorkshire gather regularly at the local church for WI* meetings. Wikipedia tells me that the Women's Institute is "a community-based organisation for women" with goals including "providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, enabling them to take part in a wide variety of activities, campaigning on issues that matter to them and their communities." Which in this case means practicing Tai Chi, hosting speakers on the history of the tea towel, and of course, producing the annual calendar. The members include single mother Cora (Naomi Karstard), flower shop owner and rebel Chris (Kristen Mathison), new widow Annie (Patty Mathews), retired school teacher Jessie (Sammie Kyng), bored and buxom city slicker Celia (Haley McCormick-Jenkins), and sweet and demure Ruth (Allison Hawley). This range of women all get something different from the WI, but mostly it's a place of support, companionship, and community as they navigate their lives. When Chris suggests they pose nude for a calendar to raise money in memory of Annie's beloved husband John (Tom Hansen), the women agree with varying degrees of reluctance. Despite disapproval from WI leadership, including the stern Marie (Lois Estell), the women persevere and are even more successful than they dreamed, discovering a newfound strength and love for one another in the process.*

Kristen Mathisen and Patty Mathews
(photo by M&D Media - Matt Ayers & Dena Denny)
Megan K. Pence directs the large and likeable cast, balancing the humor and poignancy in the script. All of the actors create unique and specific characters, employing British accents (with varying degrees of success). In particular Patty Mathews paints a beautiful and realistic picture of grief. The scene in which they all get naked, sorry - nude, for the photo shoot is a delight; the group holding up blankets while the model drops her robe behind strategically placed baked goods, flowers, or crafting items, all while the flustered young male photographer (Jackson Hoemann) quickly gets the shots. It's a very vulnerable thing to strip down in front of people, especially for women of a certain age in a society that puts so much pressure on our appearance, and these women all do it with gusto.

The play takes place over nearly a year, which necessitates frequent costume changes. Each woman has a specific style, each one realistic for women living in a small town in the early aughts. The set looks very much the church basement or gathering hall, the walls being whisked away to reveal the lovely hillside where they plant sunflower seeds in John's memory. (Costume design by Meghan Kent, scenic design by Brady Whitcomb.)

The funny and heart-warming Calendar Girls continues at Lakeshore Players Theatre through March 26.

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of Park Square Theatre's 2016 production.