What the members of the Knapely branch of the Women’s Institute wanted in 1998 was to buy a settee for the visitors’ lounge at the local hospital. What they wound up doing was raising enough money to buy the furniture and to fund a blood cancer research foundation.

The English organization also apparently started a nude calendar trend and sparked a film that grossed $96 million worldwide. The movie was so successful that screenwriter Tim Firth turned it into a play.

“Calendar Girls” kicked off Penobscot Theater Company’s 43rd season Saturday at the Bangor Opera House. It’s a tale of women’s friendships, their ability to love and support one another through life’s ups and downs and how they help each other take risks by taking it all off.

PTC’s production, directed by Angela Bonacasa, milks every laugh and sentimental moment from Firth’s two-act script. She allows the local cast of nine women and three men to form a tight ensemble that hits every naked emotional note just right even if the British accents sometimes are uneven.

Julie Arnold Lisnet as Annie and Sharon Zolper as Chris have known each other for years and it shows in their performances. Both women create multi-layered characters who are believable and genuine. Despite a rift in the Second Act, the audience is sure these two will be fast friends forever.

Ruth, portrayed with a gentle nuance by Amy Roeder, is the character who truly comes into her own by posing for the calendar. With each scene change, Roeder peels layers off of Ruth, until theater goers are applauding her inner strength.

Jasmine Ireland as the well-dressed Celia and Irene Dennis as the social climbing matron Marie are memorably hysterical. Both actresses rise above the script that presents the characters as stereotypes to reveal the real reasons each woman behaves as she does. Each woman gives a tour de force performance.

In smaller roles, Alison Cox, Margo Lukens, Carol Varney and Brad LaBree are equally fine with LaBree holding his own in a sea of estrogen as the photographer who snaps the calendar photos.

Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs and properties designer Meredith Perry cleverly created pastries, fake flowers and piles of Christmas presents to strategically cover breasts and the women’s nether regions. Each new pose for the calendar is surprisingly delightful due to the work of these designers.

Kevin Koski’s costumes help give depth to each character and Scout Hough’s lighting design is kind and forgiving toward the mostly middle-aged and beyond cast. The sound design by Brandie Larkin helps move the many scene changes along and lets the show maintain an upbeat feel.

For many theater goers, “Calendar Girls” is a welcome change from the past three years of country-music themed opening shows at the Opera House. Fans of last year’s Johnny Cash tribute will be able to get a dose of classic country Oct. 1 and 2 when Andrew Crowe performs “The Grand Tour — A Celebration of the Music of George Jones” at the Opera House.

“Calendar Girls” runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Sept. 25 at the Bangor Opera House. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 942-3333, visit the Opera House between noon and 5 p.m., or visit penobscottheatre.org.