Musical tells stories found in diary of a 100-year-old lady

Have you ever snuck through your grandmother’s diary and stumbled upon secrets she never told you? This is exactly what happens in the play, “Fascinating Ladies.”

Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre presents three cousins as they clean their sick grandmother’s house.

In their attempt to throw their grandmother a 100th birthday party, Louise — played by Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan — gets a hold of her grandmother’s diary and reads it.

She finds out that her real grandfather was killed in a war, leaving her grandmother to marry someone else.

This explains why Louise and her mother were the only redheads in the family.

Acting is a breeze for Stepkowski Tarhan as she throws her personal spontaneity and 30 years of experience into the craziest of characters.

“It’s really a pleasant experience and a gift when you affect the audience in such a wonderful and warm way,” she said.

With an energetic but soft-spoken manner, she has a hard time not smiling throughout the whole performance.

“It’s a very intimate space,” Stepkowski Tarhan said. “We see the ones that are humming and singing along and then we see the Kleenex come out.”

Learning many songs and lines in a two-and-a-half-week timeframe was hard for the whole cast. However, she knows that plays are written because there is something to be learned and explored.

The light-hearted actress jokes about what she thinks might have been the hardest thing about the whole play.

“The only hardship on everybody might have been me,” Stepkowski Tarhan said.

Francine, played by Esther Purves-Smith, is a character who tries to take control of the situation, but is boggled down by two of her cousins who desperately want to read the diary.

Playing a prim and proper character, Purves-Smith rushes after her cousins, in the attempt to try and stop them from reading the diary. Esther Purves-Smith, Elizabeth Stepkowski Tarhan and Katherine Fadum perform in Fascinating Ladies at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre.
Photo by: Jasmine Han

After getting a hold of it, Francine tries to hide it under her coat, but this does not work.

“Francine likes to have her ducks in a row as she is uptight,” Purves–Smith said. “She’s got a big heart and is always trying to do the right thing.”

Having been an actress for 22 years, she finds that the most fulfilling aspect of her job is the audience’s reaction.

“When the audience members respond to a show and are really engaged in it, it’s hugely rewarding,” Purves-Smith said.

Patty, played by Katherine Fadum, has a little secret all of her own — which is hinted at during the play when she doesn’t drink wine with her cousins.

The production features 16 songs and it offered its own challenges to the director as well as the performers.

“You have the same sensation as when you’re studying for final exams,” Fadum said. “You go home at the end of the day and your brain is toast.”

It is later revealed in the play that Patty is carrying a baby.

Fadum said that acting pregnant in the play was the biggest challenge.

Self-described as a calm person, she said, “When I found out I would have to break down into tears and be hugely emotional, I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’ “

Jan Alexandra Smith, play director, said, “Musicals are like a three-ring circus. You have to learn the music, the dance and the lines. Then eventually it all comes together.”

“Musicals are like a three ring circus, you have to learn the music, the dance and the lines. Then eventually it all comes together.”
– Jan Alexandra Smith, director of Fascinating Ladies.

Catherine O’Brien, playwright, took in one of the shows to see her work performed.

“It’s really exciting to see a director and actors interpret my words,” O’Brien said. “It makes me feel good about the process and that they understood the play and that it made sense.”

Not only does O’Brien get to experience her work, but she also looks to see how the audience reacts.

“They laughed at the right times; they cried at the right times,” O’Brien said. “It struck a chord with all of them.”

Part of musical director Joe Slabe’s job was to not let the madness of all the songs get to him.

“My job is to be the calm person and to make sure that we break it down into steps that are attainable,” Slabe said.

But even with the complex harmonies, Slabe said that the cast had the experience to pull it off.

“They all have experience in doing this kind of music,” Slabe said. “It was difficult, but they do a fantastic job.”

Mary Craig, a volunteer host, loves devoting her time to Lunchbox Theatre.

“They do such a great job,” Craig said. “Every play has something that I enjoy. I haven’t seen a bad one yet.”

jhan@cjournal.ca