A play about grief, loss and living well in the last phase of your life — and also a (tasteful) nude photo shoot and British humor — has been a bonding experience for the cast, predominantly women in the their 40s to 60s.
The latest Missoula Community Theatre production, "Calendar Girls," is a stage adaptation of a 2003 Helen Mirren movie, written by Tim Frith and drawn in part from a true story.
It centers on middle-aged members of a group called the Women's Institute. Annie (Anne-Marie Williams), has a spouse, John (Paul Ronaldo) who's been diagnosed with leukemia. To raise money for a new couch in the treatment center, the group decides to shoot a calendar of tasteful nudes, which stirs controversy in their small town.
"The most amazing thing about this show, and the importance of it," Williams said, is that "even though you have this incredibly sad, life-changing event, you also are given this amazing bond of these women, and it truly is a demonstration of the strength of the sisterhood coming together to support you through one of the most difficult times in you life, and through it shines forth this amazing, positive result."
The subject matter couldn't be more personal for director Teresa Waldorf, a veteran local actress, director and comedian.
Her husband of 25 years, Rick Waldorf, died of cancer at age 64 in 2015. Teresa said she followed the admonition to "take a broken heart and make art" and brought some of her experiences to the show, which includes a few of the couple's close friends.
"I've been a teacher my whole life. It kind of behooves me to teach people as much as I know about loss and grief," she said.
"When confronted with the loss of a partner or a family member or a friend, remember that it's our gift to keep living ourselves, and searching for the sun," she said.
She said the cast has been a motivator for her. "I'm learning so much from them and I'm so inspired by their willingness to lay it all out there and leave on the stage, and I mean they're laying it all out there."
Williams, too, is one of her best friends. "Having watched her experience that loss, it was very, I think, special for me to be a part of this play," she said. She said Waldorf gave her insights into how her character would cope in that situation. "It's almost like you're numb, your emotions at times, they're just not there in a situation that they would normally be evident, because you're just grieving."
The majority of the cast are women, in the same age range as Waldorf, between their 40s and 60s. Most would tell you that finding roles can be difficult.
"It's hard, not just around Missoula," Waldorf said. "If you were to listen to any interviews of famous actresses entering into mid-life, they would say the same thing."
For her part, Waldorf often makes those opportunities herself, directing and acting in plays independently, often at the Roxy Theater. MCT has invited her to guest-direct "Over the River and Through the Woods" and the musical versions of "Nine to Five" and "Once Upon a Mattress."
Williams has acted in Waldorf's solo productions, and MCT versions of "Steel Magnolias" and "Over the River and Through the Woods." She said her last role in her 40s was "The Rocky Horror Show Live." A native of New Zealand who studied theater at the University of Montana, she and her husband raised a family in Chile before moving back to Missoula, where she's had the chance to act again. (There weren't many community plays in their small town.) She said she's been grateful that MCT picks community theater shows with roles for middle-aged women like "Magnolias" and "Calendar Girls," and that audiences turn out to support them.
Williams said that it's been a special collaboration overall, as most of the cast and crew are women. "To be a part of that kind of energy and strength and positivity is just fantastic," she said.
That's created a different atmosphere in rehearsals, she said, particularly in the scenes where they have to imply nudity.
Waldorf cautioned that it's tastefully done, and the show is PG-13, and the calendar shoot itself is "prop heavy."
"It takes a lot of props to cover up a nude woman," Waldorf said. The volunteer prop designer, Aimee Moore, has put in tireless hours arranging "a hill of cherry buns and enough marmalade to cover a reclining woman," Waldorf said.
The requirements didn't appear to be a deterrent to potential cast members.
"We made it very clear to everyone. But on a funny side note, one of the gals that I cast actually hadn't read the script all the way through, and she didn't think she was in that scene when she accepted the role. And we were at read-through, and she was like 'Oh my God, oh my gosh,' I'm in the nude scene. And we were like, 'Do you still want the role?' and she was like, 'Absolutely, absolutely.'
"I was like, 'Hold on to that feeling because you're going to need that in the play,'" Waldorf said.
Terri Elander, who's worked with MCT dating back to 1988 and is now their PR director, plays Marie, a stern character who doesn't strip for the shoot, although seems to wish that she could. Elander said Waldorf has been a very open-minded director, asking them what they think their character would do, or how they would act, rather than dictating step by step instructions. While that approach can be beneficial, she said it's been great to have the chance to explore.
Waldorf said some theater companies opt to perform without English dialect, but MCT went for accents. The script, which the company must license, says they don't have to "adhere" to accents, but they'd be still be stuck with references to very British things — such as Maltesers, a U.K. brand of malted milk balls — that are easy to figure out from context, but they're not supposed to do any rewriting.
Besides, she couldn't sound more pleased with the script as it is.
"To come across a script like this where the roles are so beautifully fleshed out and so really well-written is a rarity," she said. In particular, she cited lines where John, discussing the end of life, said "the final phase is always the most glorious." Her favorite line goes like this: "That wherever light is, no matter how weak, a sunflower will find it."