The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire, every stage of their growth has its own beauty, but the last phase is always the most glorious, then very quickly they all go to seed.
If the above bit of poetry made you both smile with its tender knowingness and chuckle at its wit, then you have a taste of what you’re in for with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production of “Calendar Girls.” First released as a popular film starring Helen Mirren, the stage version brings its own distinct spin on the fun.
The poem is from Annie’s (Samantha Gauthier) husband John (Reed Bretz). We see their love for one another early in the play as John stops by to see Annie and her friends at the Yorkshire chapter of the Women’s Institute, a garden club affiliated with the local church.
John is warmly welcomed by the other women in the club, especially Annie’s closest friend, Chris (Stacy Dawe), who trades good-natured jabs with him. He brings them sunflower seeds from his company for planting on the hill beyond the church.
Calendar Girls @ Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Written by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi
September 15 – October 1 | grct.org
We learn also of John’s cancer diagnosis, and over the course of his next few visits to support the ladies and their projects, we experience his decline and eventual death. The progression is met with both heavy and joyful moments, intersecting well to pull the audience into the rhythm of heart and humor. Many of us can relate to these realities of life, we become invested in the characters and the story as it moves along.
Which makes the abrupt scene indicating his earthly departure enough to put a lump in your throat. Pacing slows and lighting changes, and time seems to stand still in one of the most poignant interpretations of a loved one’s death I’ve seen presented on stage.
Annie needs her women’s group more than ever as she grieves and searches for a way to memorialize her husband, and the ladies step up in a big way – with a crazy fundraising scheme that involves pinup calendars.
Pacing once again begins to build and this time the payoff is on the other end of the spectrum, in a raucous photoshoot that brought peals of laughter from the appreciative attendees at Thursday night’s final dress rehearsal. Women in the audience see the beautiful strength of their own friendships and men also see the strength—and the feminine spirit they love—of the women in their own lives.
The bonds between the women are tested as they face the surprising international attention the project brings upon them, yet they navigate it, as before, with heart and humor.
Director Michelle Urbane brings together a strong cast of veteran actors for this production. She gives room for each to shine through with unique attributes and character development, holding their own while all sharing the stage for most of the show.
You’ll enjoy getting to know the rest of the Women’s Institute group members too, including Cora (Tracey Walker), Celia (Sherryl Despres), Ruth (Mary Cay Brown), and Jessie (Sandy Navis) who plays a retired elementary school teacher and sneakily surprises you with some of the best zingers in the play. Set in England, the British accent and slang may take getting used to for some—it took me a bit in the beginning but I acclimated before too long.
We also grow fond of the supporting cast, as each plays a part in the Calendar Girl’s journey. Lighting design by Catherine Marlett-Dreher, so crucial to the scene of John’s passing, makes another strong impression when the women receive a multitude of letters from people around the world. Notes pour in from those whose lives were touched by the women’s story, reminding the ladies why they made such a bold move with the project in the first place.
The play is based on a true story that has raised over $2 million for leukemia and lymphoma research.
All in all, a fun comedy with a lot of heart, presented in one of the most beautiful theatres in town. “Calendar Girls” opens Friday, September 15 and runs through Oct. 1. For tickets visit Grand Rapids Civic Theatre or call 616-222-6650. “Calendar Girls” was written by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi.
*Photo courtesy of Civic Theater