The sequel to Church Basement Ladies, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's best-selling show (ever!), opened last weekend. And if this second installment, Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping, isn't enough "Uff da!" for audience members, don't worry: Circa '21 is already considering upcoming performances of Away in a Basement and A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement, the next scripts in the series.
I'm not surprised that this show - with its quirky middle-aged and senior-citizen female characters in small-town, Vietnam War-era Minnesota - resonated so strongly with Circa '21 ticketholders, and it was refreshing to see a production that focused on the oftentimes uncelebrated women of advanced years who work behind the scenes at Midwestern community events. Having grown up during the 1980s in a Lutheran, church-going community, I chuckled at the Lutheran vs. Catholic jokes and the quirky (and relatable) habits of its frugal and farm-toughened characters. (The plastic bread bags worn over one character's shoes as cheaper versions of snow boots hilariously defined, for me, a couple of my older relatives.)
Directed by Curt Wollan, who has also helmed six national productions of the show, Church Basement Ladies 2 dramatizes a year in the lives of the three women who compose the kitchen staff of a Lutheran church. Adorable Mavis (Nicole Savitt), with her puff of gray hair and diminutive stature, tromps across the floor detailing which local men's fingers and limbs have been hacked off during farming chores. Of course, she doesn't blink an eye at the grisly nature of her stories - she's a no-nonsense farmer's wife whose routine includes hard work, a little fun, and sleep. The widow Vivian (the phenomenal Licia Watson) behaves as if she's allergic to hugs and to anything that can be defined as "progressive." Fortysomething Karin (Nancy O'Bryan), meanwhile, rules the roost in the kitchen. But when her pregnant daughter Beverly (Elizabeth Miller) returns from the city to raise her family and take up the traditions set forth by these "church basement ladies," Karin begins to doubt her own decision to become a "Martha," a woman who works her tail off serving the rest of the congregation
Written by Greta Grosch, the script is packed with one-liners and slapstick antics that drew plenty of laughs on opening night (from myself included), but were at times overdone. For example, in the first scene, Mavis repeatedly punctuated her dialogue by gesturing with a knife over the head of the pastor (Tom Walljasper); five minutes later, she did it again. And Mavis was too often made to exclaim "Uff Da!" while forcing open the furnace door with her rear end. (I swear, poor Savitt's bottom must be bruised.) I was disappointed in these moments when excessive physical humor canceled out the dialogue, which was usually funny enough to carry the scene.
I never tired, however, of watching Licia Watson as Vivian shuffling, stiff-hipped, to the stove, or to her perch beside the table. Watson's physical personification of her character was convincing and funny; and she didn't rely too heavily on exaggerated gestures, expressing her emotions with a single smoldering or haughty look. (Even more impressive was finding out that Watson learned all of her lines and developed her character in half a week, having filled the role late in the rehearsal process.)
It's unfortunate that the only song she had the lead vocal in was "Vivian's Bad Trip," an eerie psychedelic number that seemed out of place among the good-natured, traditional songs in the show. Much more rewarding were O'Bryan's heartfelt "Cardamom Reprise," the sentimental finale, "The Tales of Your Heart," and particularly "Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger, and Clove," which celebrated the love between mothers and daughters, and the comfort of having a core group of friends and a safe haven to come to when the outside world is buried in snow or war.
This was my first experience with the Church Basement Ladies franchise, and while I thought A Second Helping was nice in an endearing, G-rated way, it was oftentimes too hokey-jokey for me. The show will likely appeal, as its prequel did, to the dinner theatre's patrons, but I wonder how the series can attract more members of my age group to future installments. Church Basement Ladies 7: Too Legit for the Basement? CBL 9: Texting from Below?
For tickets and information, call (309)786-7733, extension 2, or visit Circa21.com.