The glorious women of “Calendar Girls” at The Meadow Brook
ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich.–When I was a child I was fascinated by enormous sunflowers planted in my grandparents’ backyard, tall botanical beasts which towered over me. There is something magical about these plants, which look to me like abstract faces framed by spiky yellow hair.
Sunflowers have a special place too in the play “Calendar Girls,” adapted by Tim Firth from the screenplay he wrote (along with Juliette Towhidi) for a 2003 film. This funny, charming, touching comedy is a celebration of middle-aged women, their friendships, and their strength through hardships–women who are as golden as those sunflowers.
The outstanding Meadow Brook Theatre ensemble brings out the uniqueness of each person, from extrovert and florist shop owner Chris (Julia Glander), who once was the local rising star. (As a child she played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” And yes, aren’t there usually sunflowers in that show too.)
Her longtime best bud is Annie (Debbie Williams), whose personal tragedy will be a life-changer for them all. Ruth (Stephanie Nichols) is so hapless that even a charity she tried to make a blanket for sent it back. Cora (Stacy White) was the vicar’s kid, who keeps turning hymns into pop tunes. Celia (MaryJo Cuppone) the flirty newcomer to the group includes among her golf bag essentials a large bottle of adult beverage. And Jessie (Mary Gant) is a tough teacher who dryly recounts the time her new young headmaster referred to her as a “woman of a certain age.”
This gang meets regularly at the Women’s Institute, a community organization dedicated to education and projects. The humdrum activities imposed on them by Marie (Dorry Peltyn) take a sharp turn left when Annie’s husband John (Richard Marlatt) is diagnosed with cancer. As he loses his battle with the wicked disease he writes a touching note to his wife comparing the women of his hometown area, Yorkshire, to flowers. “Every stage of their growth has its own beauty,” he said, “But the last phase is always the most glorious.”
His favorite is the sunflower, which he loves for the way it “tracks the sun“ across the sky. “Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it.”
In his honor those wondrous women of Yorkshire plant his beloved yellow blossoms. And then another seed is planted, inspired by his praise of women over 40. They’ll replace a traditional fund-raising calendar (featuring quaint local bridges), with something a little more spicy. They conspire with a young photographer (Garett Michael Harris) to pose tastefully nude as Misses January through December, with proceeds to the hospital where John was treated.
Delightful scenes follow as the ladies work up their nerve, and then finally just do it. But when the plan succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, they learn that even a small success can have great impact on all their lives.
The script manages throughout to give life to the disparate sextet of friends, as well as other characters. Running stories, even full character arcs, are conveyed in quick moments, and lines which are by turn comical and poetical.
The setting by Jen Price Fick, lighting by Reid G. Johnson and costumes by Liz Goodall all draw us intothe world of these women. The entire production is ably directed by Meadow Brook’s artistic director Travis W. Walter, who, on opening night, appeared for his pre-show speech with a bright oversized boutonniere of–what else–a sunflower.
“Calendar Girls” sweetly warns us not to waste the hours on our own calendar. A trip to Meadow Brook Theatre to see this show is without doubt a very good use of your time.