Theater Review: Calendar Girls at Tryon Little Theater

From the left: Mollie Turner, Frances McCain, Chris Brink, Connie Clark, Cathy Jewell Fischer and Sandie Bright. Photo courtesy of Chris Tinkler

Tryon Little Theater is located along what the locals call the “string of pearls,” the beautiful small towns Saluda, Columbus, Tryon and Landrum, S.C., connected by scenic Highway 176. These quaint areas and their residents provide the genuine feeling of unity that is the theme of the play Calendar Girls, onstage at TLT through Sunday, May 8.

Originally a 2003 film starring a breezy Helen Mirren, Calendar Girls was adapted for the stage by Tim Firth with varying results. The story, which is based on true events, is about members of the Women’s Institutes in Yorkshire who decide to pose nude for their annual calendar. At first, most of the women are not easily swayed but ultimately decide that boldly raising money for cancer research is the way to go.

Connie Clark plays Chris, the spunky leader of the pack. Clark is one of TLT’s A-List actors and she’s working double time here. Her effervescence is necessary to pull this ensemble together. She understands that the show cannot stand alone on one-line zingers deliberately directed to the audience. Part of the script’s problem is that there’s not enough real depth for each character. Chris and her best friend Annie, played by Frances McCain, are the only three-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, McCain’s portrayal is too false and stern for us to feel the heartbreak of a woman dealing with her husband’s death. Lee Stockdale, who plays Annie’s husband John, also displays a limited emotional range.

There were several standout performances. Bill Wuehrmann, as the good-looking photographer Lawrence, inserts energy and has the show’s most natural accent. Cathy Jewell Fischer, as the mousey Ruth, creates a distinct character. She also chugs on a prop-bottle of alcohol while other actors clearly shield the opening with their hand. However, it is the lavender haired scene-stealer Mollie Turner, as Cora, who manages to be the most memorable of them all — not to mention realistically kooky. She’s cool.

Only a fellow director can truly understand the agonizing stress that comes with casting upsets. Hats off to director Chris Tinkler for implementing the age-old adage, “the show must go on.” Mimi Alexander admirably stepped into the role of Celia days before opening. She should have left the distracting book-in-hand behind, though, because she knew the part.

Essentially, Calendar Girls is one big intentional gimmick that’s sure to get butts in the seats. “Will these ladies actually bare it all?” In this small-town-friendly production, the answer is “no.” That’s not to say that it wasn’t humorous to see Celia holding pastries with strategically placed cherries across her bosoms, but the montage of covered up nudity wears thin. This is perhaps because each month being photographed wasn’t set up in advance on the cluttered stage.

It’s a tricky call asking these ladies to collectively drop their hymnals and go for it, but it would have been effective. The theater could have attached a disclaimer and also funded a cancer organization, which would have mirrored the actual story. This kind of enthusiastic vulnerability would have been touching and an actress could still hold her head high if spotted afterwards in the local grocery store checkout line. These attractive ladies deserve kudos, though, because it certainly looks like they’re having fun.

Despite flaws, the fun was infectious and TLT’s packed audience was in love with this hit production. It was utterly charming to witness so many people supporting each other. Calendar Girls reminds us of the importance of Community Theater.

WHAT: Calendar Girls
WHERE: Tryon Little Theater, 516 S Trade St., Tryon, tltinfo.org
WHEN: Thursday, May 5 to Saturday May 7, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 8, at 3 p.m. $11-$16.

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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