Off in the Middle West, the descendents of Vikings are gathered between the hurried flakes of snow that pierce their long history and colors their imaginations. It’s the early hours of the morning in Broadway Rose Theatre’s new show Church Basement Ladies, and a small band of women quick-change from woolen winter attire to their looking-just-fabulous vêtements.
In a well-appointed 1960s kitchen a metal molded stool, with the small matching step tucked underneath that haunted every utilitarian housewife’s dream, lies with the rotar- dial and spiral cord hanging straight above. The little sparkle in the kitchen’s eye, that centered, almost solar glare that rings off a well-made heavy and used pot, beams from the rangetop. Framing the angular boxes of cupboards, coolerators, is a heavenly collection of aprons in the most and best straightforward of designs, those Joan Miró inspired patterns that held a grip during America’s golden age of advertising, plastics, and easy-to-buy beauty.
The CorningWare, with its delightful rounded edges, cool-to-the-touch almost glass, the firm ridges that scintillate near the lid and simple, but delicious floral motif, curates the hot dishes. It’s a reliquary to the saints of cooking, those nimble-handed ancestors who used the most magnificent of tools to deliver meals which, while often can-concocted, came straight from the heart. Dead center is one of our nation’s culinary bibles – not the kind up for interpretive debate, but rather the truth: The Joy of Butter.
The four women gathered in the church basement forego their participation in weekly devotions, they are sacrificing to do work for the community. While the kitchen is a pristine monument and their church-going clothes are nin exceptional form, the band of sisters is at odds personality-wise, a motley crew on the chopping block. The matriarch of repasts, Vivian played (Lori Paschall) is, like most of her kind, nostalgic for a life now slipping away. The clarinets and trumpets of the hopscotch notes in a polka are making way for mop-topped quartets that don’t carry the long and deep Scandinavian “e,” but a high and held out “yeah, yeah, yeah.” Liturgy and lefse are her canon.
Signe (Zoe Randal) is a bright-eyed doe of a girl who, although she is studying at the university in the city, has a piety of spirit and returns home often to help in the church kitchen. Signe can’t change all of the changes that are tumulting her generation, and often bumps heads with Vivian’s austerity. Debbie Hunter plays Karin, Signe’s mother, and she too, like Vivian, has a passive longing for the myth of simpler days. Karin negotiates the common good, while at heart is torn between tradition and what’s good for raising a modern girl.
Mavis (Kymberli Colbourne) is the comic relief of the brusque generational tensions and planted-down root of what makes a woman. She is also the glue, despite her ongoing home-life catastrophes which involve debilitating her husband at the expense of modern farming equipment. She takes things in stride and sets an example for “just keeping it together.”
At the outset, you may suppose that Church Basement Ladies is a satirical poke at the devout and older. But this musical is a gentle nod of reverence to a past Midwest and a feast of a culture that is rarely celebrated. We may have our Carl Sandburg and Robert Bly to leaf through at home, but this musical is a devotional act that gives us a lens to experience and dig into a heartfelt piece of American pie. The impossible Ford machinery that made a perfect engine, the Depression-era salads that fed a pleasing mouthful of produce and high pectin molds, the slightly distant, but caring arms to a rural neighbor, somehow flesh out this narrative. It’s a prairie celebration of an important segment in our culture.
The pastor, E. L. Gunderson (Matthew Belles), slips in and out of scenes with a slight paunch over his belt, a nfive o’clock shadow nursed by the scaffold of his canonicals. He’s the world coming in and out of the kitchen, both secular and sacred. His need to be always in the kitchen makes it clear that these ladies are a foundation not just for the church, but also for him.
There’s a clean release, the moment when you put down a cloudburst of flour. It hits the wooden cutting board in a kind of expected and excited reverential waste to build a pie crust: the turning of fat, salt, water, wheat with your hands that transforms the “now” of materials into the hope of partitioned goodness. In this way, the ladies of the church basement move along. Because all cooking involves a quiet humor, as no two dishes can be alike and often mistakes lead to innovation, the multiple maneuvers of physical, emotional and intellectual activity require a Groucho Marx disposition.
There are the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, which Paschall’s Vivian plays as not just a bluesed-out memorial to the sins of concrete living, but also a reverential joke that we can all play along with. The stage lights highlight her angelic plea, while the bass notes in her song cry out that the dank and dark ,slightly urban terrain will and can upturn her Lutheran roots. Today those sister cities inspire a real roughness, but in the 1960s their desolate charms were hardly imaginable. Vivian’s self-imposed ignorance of crowds, buildings, and money is at one time an embarrassment of riches against the agrarian counties that surround the cities, but also signals the change; and while she’s not quite sure how this is going to all pan out, we’ve got her back and sympathize. Above all, we turn a good full laugh, because the Twin Cities aren’t quite Gotham, even though through Vivian’s eyes they are a Sodom and Gomorrah.
Time does and will change everything, and Colbourne’s Mavis is a hot signal of the change. She’s entered into the middle years of a woman’s body and, not shy to take advantage of any relief, sets her hot flashes into remission by the cool elements of the refrigerator’s fanning doors, and a scary and sliced metal bladed fan. And of course, in absolute moments of desperation she’ll put her tushy in the freezer box. After all, a woman has to do what a woman has to do.
That becomes the anthem of Church Basement Ladies: the hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the world. Where a woman stands may change. But at the end of the day it all comes down to who’s around, and who gives a damn on a day-to-day basis.