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Theater Review: “Church Basement Ladies”

When will we ever get over the religious divisiveness (and hatred toward vegetarianism)?

Matthew Miller | April 6, 2012

Did I just see “Lutherantopia” at Swift Creek Mill? Oh, wait, no. It’s called “Church Basement Ladies,” and it’s an amusing performance about Lutheran church basement ladies doing stuff that Lutheran church basement ladies do: baking cookies, gossiping about family history, fundraising, and praising Jesus. White, rural Protestant women in Minnesota are a hoot!

But I suspect this show is about Lutheran stereotypes in the same way HATTheatre’s recent “Jewtopia” was about Jewish ones: there are bits about Lutheran women aghast at the idea of an intermarriage (I use that word loosely) between a Lutheran and a Catholic, a Lutheran pastor pronouncing Italian “I-talian,” and Lutheran ladies hating on vegetarian lasagna (I like veggie lasagna—oh wait I’m not Lutheran).

When will we ever get over the religious divisiveness (and hatred toward vegetarianism)?

Yet, seriously, replace Lutheran with “Jewish,” change lutefisk to matzo ball soup, retitle pastor to rabbi, and this show could be called “Synagogue Basement Ladies.” Well, not really, as a Jewish friend said; synagogue ladies would have the food catered.

Anyway, all of this scintillating Lutheran fellowship takes place in the basement kitchen of East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the Prairie during the 1960s. Pastor E.L. Gunderson (a nice Brian Vaughan) is faced with the challenge of shepherding his congregation through the seismic cultural changes of the 1960s, including increased urbanization, an increased number of females attending college, and the hardest of them all: supporting a Hawaiian-themed Easter celebration. Times surely are tough!

The eldest lady, Mrs. Lars (Vivien) Snustad (a funny Robin Arthur), resists the social changes, singing a song called “The Cities” about the heathenism and corruption of St. Paul/Minneapolis. Mrs. Gilmer (Mavis) Gilmerson is played by the very amusing Ingrid Young, who has a song called “My Own Personal Island” about going through menopause. Next, there’s the musical star of the show: Tara Callahan as Miss Signe Engelson, who has recently gone off to college at the “U,” and whose on/off dating between Lutheran, handsome Harry and a Catholic, military-bound guy causes a stir in the kitchen. Lastly, there’s Signe’s mother Mrs. Elroy (Karin) Engelson, played by the convincingly matronly AnnaMarie Rossi.

Director Tom Width has congregated a talented cast, and it’s palpable that they are having a lot of fun on stage even when the ensemble singing is just OK, and his set, painted in green colors and decorated with a cross that in the beginning of the production illuminates in a heavenly glow, nicely evokes a church basement. Robin Arthur’s choreography makes good use of the kitchenware, and Paul Deiss plays the piano while Scott Lewis plays the drums, supporting the music and lyrics by Drew Jansen.

According to these four church basement ladies, you’re always “closer to God in the church basement.” Ya, that sounds easy enough. Amen.

“Church Basement Ladies” runs through May 19 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.swiftcreekmill.com/