As I walked into James Lee Community Center on the afternoon of Sunday, October 4, I filed into the theater with a rather large audience and opened my program to the director’s note, where Director Michael Donahue included a quote from the play about sunflowers: “Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is an admirable thing. And such a lesson in life.” Donahue argues that this is an important concept to keep in mind, not only for the women in Calendar Girls, but also for his audiences. This theme acts as a backdrop for his production; however, even if unintentional, Donahue highlighted an important idea that helps his production fit into the larger context of what is occurring in DC-area theater at this time.
Over the course of the fall of 2015, more than 50 DC area theater companies will participate in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an event celebrating new works created by women. While The Providence Players may not be directly participating in this festival, their choice to produce Calendar Girls could not have been more perfect. The play may not be written by a woman; however, the piece is inspired by a true story, emphasizes how a group of women, no matter how minor they may feel they are, can make a difference that can positively impact the world.
Written by Tim Firth and directed by Donahue, Calendar Girls follows a group of women in a Church activist group. After Annie (Susan D. Garvey) loses her husband, John (Bob Cohen) to cancer, she and her friends decide to produce a calendar in order to help save money to donate towards the hospital. However, there is a catch. Annie and Chris (Jayne L. Victor) take the lead and decide that the calendar needs to feature the women naked in order to properly sell. In the process, the group of six women causes an unexpected stir in their small England community that inspires growth and positive change. Firth’s script is witty and showcases an inspirational story, which Donahue successfully brought to life.
Set Designer Patrick David created a phenomenal set, particularly in his attention to detail. David built a church all-purpose room complete with a piano and bar that were used throughout the play in an interesting manner.
For example, Cora (Joanna Snitzer) used the piano for live music as the church choir director. He even included flyers on the bulletin boards and chalkboards that characters would switch out in order to help further the story. Sometimes characters would use the chalkboard to help inform the audience of the time of year, but other times, they used the board to display an important development. One strong moment was when Ruth (Michelle Fletcher), who was typically seen as a pushover, finally stood up for herself to the woman treating her as if she were nothing.
Donahue cleverly used the set to create intimate moments between characters. Towards the beginning of the play when we met John, we found that he was sick with cancer. He and his wife, Annie, went behind the bar to discuss his test results, which created an isolated area where they could discuss without others listening. Donahue’s choice emphasized the intimacy of the moment, but also set up the strength of John and Annie’s marriage. In this enclosed space, they stood huddled together and comforted one another in this hard time. The directorial choice in combination with the strong chemistry between Cohen and Garvey helped me root for them, even this early on in the play.
For a play that is so centered on the idea of support between friends, it is important that the six main women of the play have excellent chemistry. Donahue clearly worked with them because the relationships between these friends became one of the most enjoyable aspects of the piece, particularly in the scene in which they took their calendar photos.
Each of the women was assigned a month for which to pose. As each woman stepped up to take her month photo, the others would surround her with modes of covering her as she got into place. Throughout, the friends would exclaim words of encouragement to each other and compliment the photos. Watching and enjoying Calendar Girls, I felt as if I were observing a group of best friends, and it was a thrill to watch it all unfold.
The ensemble: Michelle Fletcher, Diana Conn, Gayle Nichols-Grimes, Susan d. Garvey, Bob Cohen, Barbara Gertzog, Anne Lloyd, Andra Whitt, Joanna Snitzer, Jayne Victor, Bob Thompson, Smitty Chai, and Angela Cannon was immensely talented and successfully showcased a compelling character arc.
Cohen’s portrayal of John was cut short due to the character’s early death in the play, but Cohen created a sympathetic and supportive character that was impossible not to love.
Gayle Nichols-Grimes showcased excellent comedic timing as Jessie, and Michelle Fletcher provided us with a fascinating development. She transformed from a self-conscious woman to a strong character who was unafraid to stand up for that which she believed, whether it was demanding respect from her peers, or posing for a calendar that she felt to be for a good cause.
Garvey and Victor as Annie and Chris played off each other impressively, and displayed a chemistry that I was constantly looking forward to watching unfold. As the two leaders of the group’s effort to make the calendar, as well as the two main best friends in the play, they showcased the bravery and support needed to encourage the others to take the risk.
Funny and moving, Providence Players of Fairfax’s heartfelt Calendar Girls will make for a night to remember in the theater. Especially with the Women’s Voices Theater Festival occurring throughout the DC-area, this play could not have come at a better time.
Providence Players of Fairfax Opens ‘Calendar Girls’ Tonight by Chip Gertzog.