A theatrical lesson in lutefisk and love

Church Basement Ladies please crowds in their return to Plymouth Playhouse

Photo courtesy of Plymouth Playhouse From left to right, the Church Basement Ladies: Tara Borman (Mrs. Harry Hauge / Beverly), Greta Grosch (Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson / Mavis), Dorian Chalmers (Mrs. Elroy Engelson / Karin), and Janet Paone (Mrs. Lars Snustad / Vivian).

Photo courtesy of Plymouth Playhouse
From left to right, the Church Basement Ladies: Tara Borman (Mrs. Harry Hauge / Beverly), Greta Grosch (Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson / Mavis), Dorian Chalmers (Mrs. Elroy Engelson / Karin), and Janet Paone (Mrs. Lars Snustad / Vivian).

Kari Heistad
Edina, Minn.

Oh, for fun! This phrase, delivered in a heavy Minnesotan accent from an audience member on her way out of the Plymouth Playhouse this past Sunday, pretty much sums up the musical, Church Basement Ladies, which will be performed at the local theatre from now through the middle of November. This wildly popular show about four Scandinavian women, boiling potatoes and baking lefse in the kitchen of their hometown Lutheran church, returned this summer to the very stage where it premiered ten years ago. The endearing characters—Vivian, Mavis, Karin, Signe, and their beloved Pastor Gunderson—along with their catchy songs about living as Lutherans in small-town Minnesota during the 1960s, have drawn Norwegians (and a spare Swede or two) to theatres across the country for over a decade now. But there is something about seeing it performed at the Plymouth Playhouse—perhaps you could call it a home field advantage—which makes this production feel extra special, like we’re finally being let in on a family secret that other people just wouldn’t quite understand.

Passing on traditions is, of course, the major theme of Church Basement Ladies. The character of Signe (Tara Borman), a college kid who is surprisingly eager to learn about the ins and outs of a Lutheran church basement kitchen, gives the older characters an excuse to revel, quite literally, in their long-held traditions. “The Pale Food Polka,” a zesty number sung by Signe’s mother Karin (Dorian Chalmers) warns of the dangers of adding spice to a good Norwegian meal. “Strike up the bland!” she belts. (Who would have ever thought that people would be tapping their toes to a song about lutefisk dinner?) Most of the Scandinavian schooling and lessons in Lutheranism in Church Basement Ladies comes from Vivian, the oldest of the women, played by the hilarious Janet Paone. When young Signe makes the mistake of defending lefse made with instant potatoes, Vivian takes it upon herself to demonstrate the long-practiced Lutheran art of passive aggression. As she slurps her coffee and taps her spoon with a stubborn slowness, the audience lets out a series of nervous giggles. Without uttering a word, Vivian’s message is clear: instant potatoes are about as blasphemous as it gets.

On the flip side of Paone’s deadpan comedy are the hysterical antics of Mavis (Greta Grosch), who acts as jester to Vivian’s queen of the kitchen. Suffering through the hot flashes of the condition she dubs her “own personal island,” Mavis waddles about the stage for much of the performance with various undergarments revealed, repeatedly shocking both the unsuspecting Pastor Gunderson (Tim Drake) and the audience. She draws the biggest roar of laughter when, shaking her fists until her arms jiggle uncontrollably, she cries, “Rømmegrøt arms!” The resemblance is uncanny. (The scene becomes even funnier as I watch the arms of many white-haired audience members in front of me as they applaud her joke).

True to its title, Church Basement Ladies works on many levels, descending for a few touching moments past the surface humor in order to grapple with deeper questions about the role of tradition in an ever-changing world. When a vulnerable Vivian admits to her friend Karin, for example, that she feels lost as she watches the Lutheran church change before her eyes, we see why she is always so particular about her recipes: it is not just about lefse, it is about her whole life. Karin, too, struggles with change when, near the end of the show, her daughter Signe is about to be married. And Signe herself must decide how the wisdom of the church basement kitchen will help guide her after she is married.

Sitting in the Plymouth Playhouse on a Sunday afternoon to watch a play that is centered around boiled potatoes and fish soaked in lye, the questions of what we choose to hold onto and why seem awfully relevant. With various iterations running for ten years, Church Basement Ladies has become a tradition of its own, like eating lutefisk at Christmas or parading the streets on Syttende Mai. And after a decade of filling theatre seats, this delightful musical has proven that people still crave tradition. Or, as the good Lutheran ladies of the church basement kitchen would say, “one thing is most certainly true”—some things never change, and they really never should.

This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.