BLUE HILL — Well, they pulled it off. Pulled it all off.
An intrepid ensemble of New Surry Theatre actresses have bared all the past two weekends — physically and emotionally — to perform in a funny, poignant production of Tim Firth’s “Calendar Girls.”
This engaging adaption of the movie of the same name, staged at the Blue Hill Town Theater, is based on an actual Yorkshire women’s charity group whose members posed naked, uh, nude, for a calendar to raise money to purchase a couch for the local chemotherapy center.
The audience, during the second weekend of performances, was alternately kept in stitches or tears as the tale unfolded and we met the very different women of the Women’s Institute (WI) and future calendar girls.
There’s Cora (an excellent Lori Sitzabee) a big woman with a booming voice and personality to match. Sitzabee also was one of the few who managed to hang on to a plausible northern British accent throughout; Annie (an engaging Rebecca Poole), your quintessential kind, civic-minded lady with a little spark of rebellion kindled by her best friend and the group’s alpha gal, Chris (the marvelous Glenon Friedmann).
Friedman has an unusual cadence to her speech, which sometimes makes her sound like a schoolgirl reciting poetry at the head of the class. But you get used to it and realize that her declaiming the simplest thoughts as if they were precious pearls of wisdom suits her character to a tee.
Then there’s retired schoolteacher Jessie (the delightful Veronica Young) who, as she disrobes for her pose, tells the nervous young calendar photographer (well played by Hoyt Hutchins) that she used to teach him in middle school. He manages to get off the shot before fleeing the room.
Celia (a droll and very glamorous Dorothy Parker type, played by Cherie Magnello) is a bored trophy wife, with a biting wit and a fine figure she’s more than willing to reveal to the public. Ruth (an endearing Vanessa Hawkins) is quite the opposite. A timid woman, she hides heartbreak behind a cheery façade and, at one point, a questionable bunny suit. Will she participate?
Definitely not on board is the pompous WI chairwoman Marie, commandingly played by Alison Cox who performed as Jessie in the Penobscot Theatre Company production and is just wonderful in this less revealing role.
Acing a small but important part is Maira Vandiver as Elaine, the young makeup artist who addresses the WI ladies as if they were all deaf and doddering.
We also meet Annie’s husband, John Clark (a heart-melting Matt Murphy), who, we learn right away, has had bad news from his doctor and must start a round of chemotherapy to battle leukemia.
In the course of four seasons, we watch John’s health decline, and the WI ladies’ resolve strengthens to do something useful. What they decide to do is the now famous calendar to raise money to replace an appallingly uncomfortable settee in the cancer clinic’s family room.
While the movie version of this story has star power the likes of Helen Mirren, what it can’t match is the real-time suspense and anticipation of the stage version.
Just how much will these women, all — like the original calendar girls — upstanding members of their communities — expose to an audience of their friends and neighbors?
Well, you can find out at the final three performances this weekend. Suffice it to say they are all beautiful.
When the ladies are dressed, however, costumer Elena Bourakovsky has outdone herself with dozens of outfits that help us understand who these characters are and, flawlessly, the 1990s era they represent. Many of these marvelous costumes — such as their Victorian caroling outfits that had them looking just like those figurines they sell at Beal’s every Christmas — were worn by the ladies for just a few minutes. The quick changes backstage must have been pandemonium.
While Frank John’s initial set looks unusually drab for an NST production, it is after all a church basement room. Then the whole thing ingeniously unfolds into a magnificent Yorkshire landscape, painted by Judy Taylor, which, like the costumes, we only get to glimpse for a short scene before it’s folded back into that drab function room. But the memory of that lovely Taylor-made landscape lingers.
Kudos to the tech crew, which manages to keep the action fluid by making the many, many scene changes swiftly — something that can fracture a show if clumsily done. They also handle some challenging lighting effects without missing a beat.
Director Johannah Blackman keeps the story moving at a brisk pace with very few static moments. Not an easy task as much of that anticipatory excitement is lost in the second act after the calendar has been shot.
The final three performances of “Calendar Girls” are this Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 10, at 3 p.m.
Tickets cost $15 per person, $12 for students and seniors. To reserve seats, call 200-4720 and visit www.brownpapertickets.com/.