Bill Yee will make you cry.
The six women who star in Stockton Civic Theatre’s production of “Calendar Girls,” though, will make you laugh, cry and marvel at their honesty, their integrity and their courage in bringing this true story to life.
It’s nice to see SCT step away from its usual fare of farce and bring smart, funny, moving material to the stage. Add visiting director Beth Lopes to the mix and you have a production that is beyond memorable.
The six women who play the Women’s Institute club members who agree to pose in the buff for a fundraising calendar — Nina Thiel, Cindy Braden Kari Nelson, Christina Chavez Nelson, Judy Caruso Williamson and Laura Hagler — have a chance to delve into real, meaty characters and they make the most of them. Her Chris, the genius behind the calendar to honor her friend’s late husband, has a story arc that is compelling and poignant, and Thiel makes all of her sides, from brazen comedian to sympathetic underachiever, real.
The same can be said for Chavez Nelson’s Ruth. A veteran SCT performer, Chavez Nelson may have saved her best work for “Calendar Girls.” Her turn as the happy-to-please housewife with a philandering husband grows more likeable in each scene.
Ruth’s strength is forged by posing for the calendar, a project that involves the six women posing nude. While Taylor’s nervous young Lawrence provides comedic escape as the photographer charged with capturing the women on film, the work of the six women in the scene is magnificent.
It had to have taken hours to choreograph the photo shoot scene, and it’s handled tastefully and with a great comedic touch, a nod to Lopes’ directing skill.
The courage of the six women to strip on stage cannot be overstated. Even if their nude poses for the calendar are covered by props, they’re required to bare all, and they handle it with grace and wit.
Karie Nelson can always be counted on to make you laugh, and she delivers again here as Cora, the vicar’s daughter who has pointed comments about organized religion and other observations. But who knew she could play the piano and sing? The role also lets her show her maternal instincts.
Hagler is a newcomer to SCT and is perfect as Celia, a bit of a vamp and keen observer of the country club set, and Braden’s Cindy, whose husband dies to set this escapade in motion, deftly handles the transition from humor to pathos. Yee, who plays the doomed husband, is so likable that his death, and Cindy’s loss, feel personal.
Finally, Caruso Williamson, who has acted at SCT since she was attending Edison High School, is back and begs the questions, where have you been? Or maybe the better question is, why haven’t there been more productions for this phenomenal woman to display her wares? As an actress, I mean.
She is funny, sharp, adorable and in a bit of art imitating life, the longtime Stagg High School theater teacher plays a retired school teacher who can deliver the line that she’s “grown venomous by years of exposure to schoolchildren,” with a wink and a lot of heart.
SCT artistic director Dennis Beasley brought in his friend, Lopes, from Los Angeles to direct “Calendar Girls.” Unfamiliar with SCT, she cast on what she saw, and gut instinct. Her choices could not have been better. Just as importantly, she let the actors go to work.
And, oh, what material they had to work with. “Calendar Girls” is a show that gives female performers something interesting and significant to say.
There were more than a few complaints by viewers at Wednesday’s preview show that the British accents were hard to understand and some of the voice projection wasn’t loud enough. Let’s hope that improves with each performance, because the dialogue is worth hearing. It’s almost as if for some, the effort to maintain the accent detracts from the importance of projection.
The selection of this show was a great one by SCT and should be applauded. But just wait until you see what this troupe does with it.