Women raising funds by raising eyebrows is the heartwarming thread binding the love, humor, bravery, and sass within Tim Firth’s 2008 British comedy Calendar Girls, pleasantly presented by the Young at Heart Players at the Dayton Playhouse.
Firmly directed by Annie Pesch and expansively adapted from the 2003 film of the same name, Calendar Girls is based on the 1999 true story of a group of Yorkshire women who produced a cheeky nude calendar to raise money for leukemia research under the auspices of the Women’s Institutes. In the play, which is often very funny although there are many sentimental scenes, sensitive Annie (Kerry Simpson in her finest role to date) and outspoken Chris (a vibrantly earthy Becky Howard) spearhead the calendar, a lighthearted tribute to Annie’s late husband John (an endearing Jim Spencer) with proceeds going toward purchasing a new couch for the WI waiting room. Annie and Chris’ friends are initially unsure about shedding their clothes, but ultimately all agree and the calendar becomes an enormous success, bolstering the Yorkshire village of Knapely to international notoriety. Along the way, feelings are bruised and friendships are tested, but positive public reaction to the cause, the sheer power of sisterhood, and the fond remembrance of John’s gentle spirit prevails. In fact, one of the play’s best moments involves numerous letters descending from the sky serving as beautiful reminders of the ladies’ impact and influence.
In addition to expertly staging the poignancy of the aforementioned scene as well as John’s heartbreaking exit, Pesch smoothly guides the playful frenzy of the Act 1 finale, the pivotal photo shoot overseen by Lawrence (a fittingly bashful Michael Plaugher). This delightful moment exemplifies how well Simpson and Howard are connected with and supported by principals Amy Askins (pianist Cora), Gayle Smith (amiable Jessie), Heather Martin (sophisticated Celia), and Fran Pesch (reticent Ruth). The appealing cast, one of the largest assembled by YAH, includes Cheryl Mellen (Marie), Kelli Locker (Brenda Hulse and Elaine), John Spitler (Rod), Jane E. McBride (Lady Cravenshire), and Brian Buttrey (Liam).
Calendar Girls continues through Nov. 25 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Act 1: 63 minutes; Act 2: 50 minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors. Tickets may be purchased at the door. For reservations, call (937) 654-0400. For more information, visit youngatheartplayers.com. Patrons are advised the production contains adult language and partial nudity.
The Man Who Killed the Cure
Typically, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta has absolutely nothing to do with the stage, but a notable storyline has brought a refreshing level of depth to the popular franchise.
In the latest episode, NeNe Leakes’ husband Gregg, diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in May, visited his doctor for a checkup, anxiously awaiting the assessment. When told he should begin another round of chemotherapy for precautionary measures, Gregg asked his doctor about alternative treatments, an idea his doctor openly opposed. Weighing his options, he decided against chemotherapy. While watching this emotional exchange, I couldn’t help but think of Luke Yankee’s controversial drama The Man Who Killed the Cure, a thought-provoking tale of family, friendship, betrayal, and hope commendably presented in its Midwestern premiere by the Dayton Theatre Guild under the fluidly character-conscious direction of Jeff Sams (also responsible for efficient scenic design).
Set in Germany and New York in the 1930s and 1940s (sound designer K.L. Storer supplies a superb period soundtrack), Cure is based on the life of Max Gerson, one of the fathers of natural healing terrifically portrayed by J. Gary Thompson. The play examines how all hell broke loose within the medical community when Max discovered an all-natural cure for cancer in the late 1940s. Was Max merely a quack for suggesting treating ailing patients with apples? Some were intrigued by his forward-thinking findings, including prominent radio personalities such as Long John Nebel (an admirable Scott Madden), but the majority sought to bring him down personally and/or professionally, even to the point of poisoning.
One of Max’s conspirators was his former partner Rudy Heller, the titular role, a self-described Judas and Brutus, portrayed by an equally winning David Williamson. Rudy saved Max’s life in Germany during World War II and was pleased to join forces with him as up-and-coming Manhattan doctors, but he chose to separate when Max’s reputation grew problematic despite only one patient dying under his care over a span of 10 years compared to Rudy’s 24. Rudy’s decision also stemmed from being blackmailed by powerful pharmaceutical companies, represented here in the form of Carmichael, portrayed by a charmingly cunning Ryan Shannon (a standout last season in the Guild’s local premiere of Marjorie Prime).
Yankee, providing fascinating projections, aspires to absolute balance in his perspectives, but Rudy just isn’t as interesting or engaging as Max. Rudy is primarily written from a narrative focus, but I wonder how the play would evolve without the narration. Perhaps Yankee believed there could be some redemption in Rudy if he established a relationship with the audience at the outset. Even so, Rudy oddly becomes a nastier and more vindictive curmudgeon along the way, which doesn’t necessarily help his case in the end. At the same rate, I’m left a bit puzzled by meek Max, who seems too clear-cut and is often overshadowed by the flashier presence of Rudy. Did Max ever have serious doubts about his alternative methods? Did he battle any personal demons? In terms of dramatic structure, a more complex, multifaceted look at his life at home and in the midst of medicine would give this play significant bite.
In addition, I find the inclusion of Rudy’s shrewd, sexual mistress Helga (Kristyna Zaharek in a breakthrough performance) forced, especially when situations turn and Helga suddenly falls for Max who has no idea she’s working for and being abused by Rudy. Yankee could also do without his insertion of Hedda Gabler, spotlighting the progression of Rudy and Helga’s relationship and featuring the versatile Melissa Kerr Ertsgaard. By and large, it’s an inconsequential scene unintentionally questioning Cure’s talky nature.
No matter your opinion on the delicate subject of cancer treatment, you’ll be glad to know Yankee understands everyone must ask themselves what is best for the betterment of their body. Cure isn’t as excellent as his Last Lifeboat, a hit for the Guild in 2016, but it celebrates a decent man nonetheless.
The Man Who Killed the Cure continues through Nov. 25 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Act 1: 60 minutes; Act 2: 65 minutes. Tickets are $15. For more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org. Patrons are advised the production contains adult language.