Laughter and tears abound in Greater Boston Stage Company’s vivacious production of “Calendar Girls,” playing through June 17. It should be noted that though the play has some poignant passages, the tears are the result of the comedy, which takes a while to gather steam and then trails off again -- but when it peaks, oh boy, does it peak.
Five members of the church-affiliated Yorkshire, England, chapter of Women’s Institutes (an international charitable organization) grow bored with the calendars they produce annually to raise money for local causes. While pleasantly bucolic, the calendars lack the oomph they need to attract many buyers. What’s more, the ladies have a personal connection to one of the charities they support: Annie (Maureen Brennan) is married to a cancer patient, John (Sean McGuirk), who is receiving treatment at a local hospital. The worn-out sofa in the relatives’ lounge of the cancer ward is unbearably uncomfortable, but replacing it is a pricey proposition; the ladies are going to have to sell a lot of calendars in order to make it happen.
Then the group’s ever-enthusiastic leader, Chris (Karen MacDonald) hits on the unorthodox — but thrillingly transgressive -- idea of producing and selling a topless calendar in which the ladies themselves will star. After all, if you have skin in the game, why not also include it in your wares?
The group’s members react according to their personality types. Ruth (Sarah deLima), who is fairly uptight, instantly enters paroxysms of anxiety, while the sexy and confident Celia (Mary Potts Dennis) is equally gung-ho. Core (Kerry A. Dowling), the church organist, finds great pleasure in bucking her stolid image, and longtime school teacher Jessie (Bobbie Steinbach), a live wire happy to make waves for the sheer joy of it, jumps on the idea with abandon. Given that the group’s activities are supervised by the stuffy Marie (Cheryl McMahon), the photo shoot has to be handled discreetly; enter photographer Lawrence (Nael Nacer), who is willing to work secretly, and in the dead of night.
Lawrence intuits what the others don’t see at first — that in order to be both charming and titillating, the calendar’s middle-aged models will need to be seen doing all the domestic things proper British women are expected to do like baking, knitting and gardening. The fact that they will be naked (or, rather, nude; it’s a crucial distinction) will not just be a selling point, but a humorous, and even innocent, twist.
It turns out to be recipe for a calendar that sells like hotcakes and boosts the ladies to international fame. That’s when the inevitable frictions arise -- between the ladies and more conservative elements within their church, but also within the group itself, as egos clash and motives come into question.
The play is based on the internationally successful movie from 2003 written by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth; the film, in turn, has roots in real events. Both the artifice of the movies and the mundanity of the everyday world leave their marks on the stage version, which has a way of pigeonholing the various characters a little too neatly according to type, and which relies on some not-entirely-successful amping up of tensions within the group. The dramatic passages don’t quite have the weight they need -- everyone is just too darn nice, or at least too polite. One confrontation takes the form of a game of badminton (the running joke here is that the game is played without a net); in another, fleeting moment of tension, Chris and her husband (Rod (Michael Kaye) butt heads over the amount of time and focus she’s putting into PR for the calendar instead of their struggling flower shop. These flare-ups are emotional brush fires that crackle for a moment and then die away, essentially forgotten, and all emotional rough edges are handily smoothed over; even a sad transition in which a character passes away is handled with such poetic delicacy that you don’t feel the moment’s intrinsic sadness so much as nod in appreciation for the elegant way it’s dealt with.
But the comedy pops, especially in the uproarious, liberating scene in which the ladies, one by one, confront Lawrence’s camera lens, and their own insecurities, and let rip with a little skin (tastefully implied more than shown) and a lot of joyful release of inhibition. It’s a long sequence, uplifting for both its depiction of courageous vulnerability and its humor, and it absolutely makes the play.
So, too, does Jenna McFarland Lord’s set, a slightly cluttered, dun-colored and vaguely dingy church setting that the cast, under the direction of Nancy E. Carroll, transform into a playground of possibilities and personalities. (Jade Guerra and Kathy St. George also appear briefly, in small but memorable parts.) Karen Perlow’s lighting skillfully underscores the play’s moods and transitions, as does Dewey Dellay’s sound design.
“Calendar Girls” continues through June 17 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.