A! Magazine for the Arts

"Church Basement Ladies" serve a casserole of laughter and memories

May 19, 2019

Step into Barter’s Stage II and you can almost smell the coffee brewing and pies baking. Images of dishes spread over a lace-clothed table, filled with the quintessential comfort food of a potluck supper make your mouth water. Indeed a delectable feast is in store as "Church Basement Ladies" takes the stage by storm, whipping up a casserole of laughter and music born of fond memories. Inspired by the books of Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, including "Growing Up Lutheran," this play celebrates the stalwart and nurturing women who feed souls as well as bellies with comforting nourishment from that sacred space below the sanctuary: the church kitchen.

Playwrights Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke with composer/lyricist Drew Jansen have created a theatrical offering that is as entertaining as it is nostalgic. The title alone conjures up images, feelings, and memories for most of us, whether an occasional visitor or a staunch and steady church attendee. Although set in a Lutheran church in the middle of America’s Heartland heavily influenced by Scandinavian heritage, its humor and message are universal. No matter what your religious persuasion you will recognize these four ladies, their pastor, and the unseen but much beloved church custodian because they are common threads in the fabric of congregations everywhere.

In 2006 I had the pleasure of seeing "Church Basement Ladies" performed by the original cast at Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where it was created. The delight and belly laughs I enjoyed then were relived as I watched Barter’s production, which has unequivocally captured all the freshness and unique flavor of this unusual musical comedy.

It is the 1960s as the ladies of the East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the Prairie in Cornucopia, Minnesota, gather to do what they do best: prepare food and tend the church community - even if it might entail a bit of gossip and unsolicited advice now and then.

Vivian Snustad (Tricia Matthews), the stalwart matriarch, runs “her” church kitchen with the precision of a Swiss (or should we say Scandinavian?) watch and the wisdom acquired from decades of service. Her right-hand helper Mavis Gilmerson (Paris Bradstreet) is the resourceful farmer’s wife and mechanical whiz with the brute strength and wit of a sailor. Mother and daughter duo Karin Engleson (Carrie Smith Lewis) and Signe Engleson (Sarah Van Deusen) complete the foursome, working their own brand of modern wisdom into the mix. Pastor Gunderson (Rick McVey) makes an occasional foray into their realm while attending to the business of running his church, gently but unwittingly navigated by their female ingenuity. This ensemble of actors absolutely clicks in this close-knit world of shared religious conventions and tested relationships. The flow of energy from one actor to another is electric, bringing out the best in everyone. While belonging to a single heritage and congregation, each character has a very distinct personality. Each actor enveloped themselves completely with these personas to tell an all-too-familiar story about the comfort of tradition and the struggle with inevitable change.

Director Nicholas Piper leads his flock with care and acuity. His understanding of the personal values of these characters and what is at stake for their traditions is evident and takes the lead at every turn. Music Director Dishon Smith, a.k.a. Church Organist, provides a steadfast musical foundation. He not only delivers unswerving accompaniment but also leads beautiful vocal harmonizations that are as tight and on pitch as the love that bind the characters together.

Hana Lee allows us a step back in time with a totally retro church kitchen set design. Complete with white enamel appliances and painted cabinets, it comes fully equipped with stockpots, comestibles, and the ubiquitous mammoth coffee urns. This nostalgic setting is complemented with costume designs by Ashley Campos that authentically reflect 1950s-60s Midwest housewife fashion: sensible shirtwaist dresses for work and coordinated dress suits for Sunday best. Young Signe’s outfit even echoes traditional Swedish dress. But they have a bit of fun with eye-popping color in muumuu dresses for the Hawaiian Easter themed fund-raiser (plus an adorable Hawaiian bunny costume for the pastor). All the ladies are topped off with Whitney Kaibel’s marvelous wigs, designed to give each an age-appropriate hairstyle of the era.

Serving up hefty helpings of comedy and singable melodies, this play is a loving tribute to the unsung heroes of church suppers everywhere. So, is partaking of its scrumptious treats a part of a healthy diet? To quote Martin Luther himself, “This is most certainly true.”

"Church Basement Ladies" runs at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, Virginia, through Aug. 25.

For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or www.bartertheatre.com

Bonny Gable is a former theater professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia. https://www.linkedin.com/in/bonny-gable-4a4767a1/