Tuesday, May 17, 2022


By Ruth Ross

If you’re a fan of the PBS series All Creatures Great and Small, then you are familiar with the England’s Yorkshire Dales, a rural landscape featuring rolling hills dotted with sheep and cattle farms and small villages located in down in the valleys—a place where agricultural shows and festivals are often the highlights of the year.

To foster a sense of community amidst far-flung homesteads, an organization called the Women’s Institute was founded in 1915 to “give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community…while [making] friends and…a difference in [the] community.” This organization and the Yorkshire Dales provide the setting for Calendar Girls, by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, currently running at the Chatham Playhouse through May 22.

The play is based on a film by the same name, which is based on the true story of a bunch of British housewives from the hamlet of Knapley, who decide to raise money to replace a ratty sofa at the hospital where one of their husbands recently died of leukemia. However, instead of photos of churches or picturesque bridges decorating the WI’s local calendar, one gal gets the idea that the women should pose nude (or semi-nude), setting off conflict among the Women’s Institute, their group’s leader Marie, and the women themselves. The result is a dramedy, linking hilarity with serious concerns regarding modesty, relationships and the devastation of cancer.

One fun thing about the Chatham Players is that they have a solid troupe of returning players who are very comfortable being onstage together and, in this case, seem to be having a grand time doing it. On a parish hall set designed by Roy Pancirov (supplemented by fold-out panels that transport us to the Dales) and under Joseph Porter’s direction, the cast of nine women and two men exhibit their nifty comedic timing, much to the merriment of the audience!

As the driving force behind the scheme, Lynn Langone’s Chris (left, with Joyce Porter as Annie) is a bundle of energy and full of outrageous ideas that run afoul of Marie, the WI’s very prim chairwoman (Joëlle Bochner, above, right center standing). Langone outrageous, large personality stands in stark contrast to her sisters: minister’s daughter Cora, a shop owner and divorced single mother who is the official pianist of the Knapely WI (Rachelle Rennagel); the mayor’s wife Celia (Leslie Williams Ellis); carpet dealer's housewife Ruth (Lisa Barnett), retired teacher Jessie (Terri Sturdevant, up to her usual comic shenanigans); and Annie Clarke (Joyce Porter), Chris’s best friend whose husband John’s death from leukemia spurs the idea for the nude (not naked—the women are very clear on the difference) calendar. This bevy of actors clearly convey the reticence and questions raised by the idea of taking off their clothes for a photo shoot; their reasons range from extreme modesty to fear of being a poor role model for a rebellious teenage daughter. We can sympathize with them as they wrestle with their reservations, all while feeling the urge to do something worthwhile to honor John Clarke. When they finally do pose nude behind a variety of props (no spoilers) provided by Carol Petersen Saso we are keenly aware of the sacrifice they have made to their dignity and sense of self. It’s a joy to watch the metamorphosis.

As the men in their lives, John Correll (Right, with Porter) is fine as John Clarke; we watch him go from hale to frail in the first act. As Chris’s florist husband Rod, Mike Sundberg is, at first, supportive, but when a business opportunity comes up for which his wife will be unavailable, he’s understandably resentful. And Pierce V. Lo gets to play two characters, the photographer Lawrence and television aide Liam. Maryanne Galife Post gets a chance to swan in as Lady Cravenshire, the local noblewoman and patron of the harvest fair, and Shannon Campbell struts her arrogance as the cosmetician Elaine.

The action unfolds throughout the year, marked by costumes designed by Fran Harrison (below), lighting by Ed Pearson, and sound by Gordon Wiener. Each character gets a star turn to perform a speech or get into an argument: Sturdevant’s Jessie riffs on old age, Langone’s Chris argues with Annie about the effects of fame, and when Barnett’s Ruth reveals her marital woes, she really tugs at the heart.

“The Women’s Institute may not do nudity, but they do do charity” is the driving idea behind this hare-brained scheme. Instead of raising a mere pittance needed for a new sofa, calendar sales net much more, to be used to set up a fund for cancer patients and their families!

Calendar Girls is a feel-good comedy with serious ideas in the subtext. How far will one go to perform a good deed? Can one be too old to show a little skin, especially for a worthy cause? What is the nature of fame? Can one look beyond one’s own suffering to ease that of others? You’ll laugh a lot at the antics of these brave women, and you’ll think about and discuss the questions raised by the fruits of their exploits.

By the way, there’s a fetching 2023 calendar featuring the six posers on sale in the lobby! It will look lovely hanging in your kitchen or over your desk next year and remind you of the magic of theater. They also make a great gift! I will never look at these actors the same way again! (Right: Terri Sturdevant as Jessie)

Calendar Girls will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through May 21. For information and tickets, call 973-635-7363 or visit online.