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A Group of British Women Bare All for Charity in Calendar Girls

The women of a small village in England create their own nude calendar.

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Karen MacDonald, Kerry A. Dowling, Sarah deLima, Bobbie Steinbach, Maureen Brennan, and Mary Potts Dennis in a scene from Calendar Girls, directed by Nancy E. Carroll, at the Greater Boston Stage Company.
(© Nile Scott Shots)

However unlikely, the events that brought fame to the "Calendar Girls" actually happened. The 2003 film Calendar Girls, written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth, and transformed for the stage by Firth and Gary Barlow, follows the story of a group of middle-aged, middle-class, somewhat twee women from a rural Yorkshire, England, village who raised money for charity by posing nude for a calendar. Their behavior brought reproaches from the good and self-righteous around them, making their eventual success even sweeter.

The production of Calendar Girls at the Greater Boston Stage Company is set in a drab church hall surrounded by brown-colored walls, pierced by gothic high-pointed windows, and furnished with a woeful assortment of mismatched chairs and tables, designed with a telling feel for the style by Jenna McFarland Lord. Six women are singing "Jerusalem," led by Cora (Kerry A. Dowling), the church organist and choir leader, a single mother given to grief over her rebellious daughter. The alpha female is Chris (Karen MacDonald), adding tai chi gestures to embellish the hymn. Her best friend is Annie (Maureen Brennan), whose husband, John (Sean McGuirk), has been diagnosed with leukemia and is dying. Jessie (Bobbie Steinbach), a retired schoolteacher; Ruth (Sarah deLima) a passive, reticent elder; and Celia (Mary Potts Dennis), the spoiled, rich girl and resentful golf widow, complete the cohort.

Enter Marie (Cheryl McMahon), head of the local British Women's Institute, which feels like an adult version of the Girl Scouts crossed with the New England Watch and Ward Society. Marie is determined to foist betterment activities on the women, including Brenda Hulse (Kathy St. George) a lecturer who speaks on the value of broccoli; and a local aristo, Lady Cravenshire (also St. George), who bestows a baking prize named after herself. The three men in the play are ancillary to its theme: the aforementioned John; Rod (Michael Kaye), Chris's jolly drunk of a husband; and Lawrence (Nael Nacer), the shy photographer. When John passes away, his death becomes the catalyst for the charity photo shoot.

Although director Nancy E. Carroll touchingly stages John's death, the high point of the production is the actual photo shoot, when the women unhook their bras, fling their panties, and arrange themselves for the camera. In truth, very little is shown, other than large smiles at their derring-do and patches of skin behind oversized muffins, teacups, and other carefully placed props. The calendar in John's memory takes off in sales and international press accounts, bringing both a large sum of money to the hospital and a boost in self-esteem for the women.

Carroll, who is also a Boston actor, has cast a welcome number of her acting compatriots. MacDonald brings a feisty presence to Chris, who learns some suppressed truths about herself. Brennan plays Annie in a poignantly grieving manner; Dowling is a lusty, full-voiced Cora; Steinbach is a master of comic timing as the wryly cynical Jessica. DeLima finally asserts herself as Ruth, outing her straying husband; and Dennis gives the whining Celia a sense of style and humor. McMahon plays the holier-than-thou Marie, and the ever-appealing St. George is a hoot as both the clueless Brenda and the dopey Lady Cravenshire dispensing noblesse oblige with her prizes. Nacer makes Lawrence into the funniest character as a perspiring, embarrassed young man saddled with a job he never wanted. Though all of the acting performances are stellar, their varying English accents don't quite match up.

Calendar Girls also presents the rivalries each of these small-town women have with each other, and the secrets they share, but their sisterhood never wavers in offering support, courage to face life's travails, and a love to bind their friendship. The charm of the play and the comfort of these relationships is all the more satisfying knowing how true they are.

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