Even if you are a Dawkins-lovin’, God-mockin’, card-carryin’ atheist, the odds are that during your youth you spent some time in and around a church or synagogue. Be you current or lapsed Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Methodist, Jew or any other God-fearing flavor, you likely shared the same, quintessential religious experience of witnessing the tireless efforts of a select few female congregants to feed the flock at every regular and unscheduled gathering.
Often led by an older, veteran kitchen-minder and usually including two, if not three, generations of women-folk hailing from the same family, these devoted devouts showed up early and stayed late to prepare lefse and latkes, coffee and cakes. Their ministrations, maybe more than those of the priest or pastor, gave succor to the sad and added joy to the jubilant. Regardless of where the kitchen resided in your particular house of worship, they were (and are) the Church Basement Ladies.
Though one hears “The devil is in the details” more frequently these days, that phrase is a bastardization of the original, “God is in the details.” In the case of Boulder’s Dinner Theatre’s Church Basement Ladies, some deity — most certainly ably assisted by the likes of Scenic Designer Amy Campion, Costume Designer Linda Morken, Technical Director Steve Street and Director Curt Wollan — must have been smiling down from his or her puffy, white cloud, because the level of detail and number of little touches in this regional premiere are nearly characters all their own.
Snow falls fast outside the basement windows. Dishes arrive in glass-lidded, white Corningware. The Joy of Butter cookbook sits front and center on the counter. “Grace,” the famous Enstrom photo of an old man bowing his head in prayer over a modest meal, hangs on the rear wall of the kitchen. The women wear simple, functional, probably hand-made aprons. And in the spirit of “waste not, want not,” tin foil is smoothed and reused over and over again.
Set in Minnesota in 1964, Church Basement Ladies is a lighthearted look at a Lutheran flock. Vivian (Barb Reeves), the eldest of the kitchen queens, rules the basement. Old fashioned, even prickly at times, Vivian’s devotion to the culinary needs of the congregation is unparalleled. Her right-hand woman, Karin (Alicia Dunfee), is equally able and decidedly more affable. Karin’s daughter, Signe (Heather Marie Doris), represents the next generation of the kitchen crew. Mavis (Bren. Eyestone Burron) serves as handywoman, referee and court jester. Pastor Gunderson (Wayne Kennedy) mostly tries to stay out the way.
From festivals to funerals to new furnace fundraisers, these women (and man) weather it all with good humor to spare. Much of the comedy — like Mavis’ menopausal hot flashes and the cultural disdain of Norwegians for Swedes — is timeless. Vivian gives voice to the age-old suspicion of the farmer for the townie. She even refers to Minneapolis-St. Paul as “the cities.” Songs like “Closer to Heaven (in the Church Basement)” and “The Pale Food Polka” underscore the folksiness and gentle stereotypes.
Kennedy and Dunfee, two of my all-time BDT favorites, seem effortless in their roles. The mother-daughter relationship between Dunfee and Doris enjoys a genuine chemistry as well. Reeves plays Vivian perfectly as caring but crotchety. The rich, creamy center of Church Basement Ladies, though, is Bren. Eyestone Burron. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see Burron back after her long absence from the BDT stage. As Mavis, Burron appears to be having the best time of the bunch, gets the biggest laughs and keeps things moving throughout the show. I hope beyond hope that she shows up at BDT again very soon.
I attended Church Basement Ladies with two people from Minnesota-adjacent Wisconsin and one from rural Pennsylvania, and the universal elements of the show resonated with each of their memories of time spent at weddings, ice cream socials and the like.
Their smiling faces after the show were a testament to just how right Church Basement Ladies gets it.
Church Basement Ladies plays at Boulder´s Dinner Theatre through May 12. Tickets are $35-$56. 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder. For tickets or information, call 303-449-6000 or visit www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.