by Liz Lizama
After nearly two years in trying to secure the rights to bring Tim Firth’s “Calendar Girls” to Northern Virginia, the Providence Players opened its 18th season last week with the British comedic play.
Director Michael Donahue said initially the theater group chose the familiar story to attract new audiences already acquainted with the 2003 feature film. Though after reviewing the script, he found universal themes of friendship and life that resonated with him.
“Once I read the play, I actually fell in love with some of the deeper layers about it,” said Donahue.
“I think what everyone remembers is how entertaining those actresses were that did the movie – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and all of them – but I don’t think they remember what’s lying underneath of it all. This group of friends bound together by a common core, rebelling against social rules, but then there is a transformative piece to it like changing of the seasons.”
The play takes place in Yorkshire, England where best friends Annie (played by Susan Garvey) and Chris (played by Jayne Victor) lead fundraising efforts to help a fellow Women’s Institute member who lost her husband to leukemia.
The two rally other members to pose for an “alternative” calendar that attracts media, fame and funds.
“We don’t realize how many lives that we touch until there’s that void,” said Donahue. “And all of sudden you realize that hey – this person and whatever has happened to them – it transforms all of us. And a lot of us have gone through illness with loved ones or friends or tragic accidents. There’s a transformative thing that happens.”
Based on a true account, Donahue said it is a feel-good story of friendship with a lot of layers. “That’s the kind of show I like to tweak out and tell that story.”
For Donahue, the core of the story lies in how one of the characters deals with the jarring news and makes a symbolic reference to sunflowers and life.
“He basically says this really beautiful thing about sunflowers,” said Donahue.
“He says, ‘No matter how little light there is, the sunflower will always follow it, and that is a lesson for life.’”
Donahue said all of us facing challenges at any age could appreciate the glass half-full approach to life.
And while the story is set in rural England, Donahue said it is not grounded to one geographical location.
“It could be set in Abilene, Texas or Falls Church, Virginia. The story is not about accents, it is a universal story about love and friendship and going outside one’s comfort zone.”
The playwright suggests not using all British accents, according to Donahue. Coincidentally, half his cast members are British, and the other half American.
“The texture of their voices all together when I was auditioning them, I knew within the first day,” said Donahue of casting the show.
“I’m not trying to make everyone be British. If you’re British, you’re British. If you’re American, you’re American. It’s the 21st century, and we’re a melting pot of people. ”
“Calendar Girls” runs now until Oct. 17. Performances are scheduled for Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with a special 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on Oct. 11.
The play will be performed at the James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $17 for students and seniors. For more information, visit providenceplayers.org or call 703-425-6782.