In 2005, Church Basement Ladies premiered at Plymouth Playhouse, a run that lasted two and a half years and entertained over 250,000 patrons. Over the next eight years there were four additional stories featuring the stalwarts of the church: Vivian Snustad (Janet Paone), the matriarch of the kitchen; Mavis Gilmerson (Greta Grosch), the hard-working jack-of-all-trades farm wife; Karin Engelson (Dorian Chalmers); and Karin’s daughter Signe (Tara Borman). As at any church, the pastor (Tim Drake) is the center of all activity and a frequent visitor to the kitchen for coffee and advice. Now, to celebrate the series’s ten-year anniversary, Plymouth Playhouse has brought back the original musical, which will run through November 15.
The show tells the story of these women’s friendship, which has grown over countless cups of coffee and servings of hotdish, lutefisk, Jell-O, and bars. There’s a lutefisk dinner, a lunch served after the funeral of the longtime custodian, a fundraiser for the new church furnace, and finally a wedding reception for Signe. The story opens with Signe coming home from “the Cities,” where she is attending college. Advice about avoiding the evils of big-city life, the dangers of falling in love with a Catholic, and the sharing of tried-and-true recipes (“The Pale Food Polka”) is all passed on in song and dance. The slapstick comedy of Grosch, the deadpan humor of Paone, and the sincerity of Drake as Pastor Gunderson have not wavered in any of the productions I have seen.
I came into the franchise late and saw the final three episodes, culminating in 2013 with The Church Basement Ladies in the Last (Potluck) Supper. Walking into the Plymouth Playhouse I felt like I was coming home: back to that Lutheran church basement near Fargo that I have visited before. This is particularly true because Paone, Grosch, Chalmers, Borman, and Drake are all original cast members and have appeared in subsequent installments over the past ten years. The set is so authentic, and does not change—just like the church basements and halls we remember. If I had not seen other productions at Plymouth Playhouse I would find it hard to be believe that this is just a set. Curt Wollan, who has directed all five Church Basement Ladies musicals, says that he found his inspiration in his mother, who was such a well-respected church kitchen lady that her church named their new stove in her honor.
At the show that I attended, Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, writers of Growing Up Lutheran, were in attendance and warmly welcomed the audience. This book was the inspiration for this original Church Basement Ladies production. The producers’ hope is that loyal followers of the Troupe America Inc. franchise are ready for another visit and that there is another generation of theatergoers who have not seen any of the shows. I’m afraid the number of people out there who have memories of their own mothers and grandmothers serving lunches in a church hall is shrinking, but there will always be an audience for gentle humor about generational differences.