There are few examples in modern history of a mass culture growing as rapidly as America did during the 1960s. It was the ‘60s that saw us making radical pushes for equal rights, legitimizing a variety of low income cultures, and exploding the art world. It was a decade of extreme push and pull, and it laid the groundwork for a more diverse and complicated America.
Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehlke’s Church Basement Ladies, as summarized by the South Park Theatre, is a play about four women who organize the food and “solve the problems of a rural Minnesota church about to undergo changes in 1965.” In spite of this, Stowell and Zuehlke’s play often feel more like an oasis from the difficult realities of the ‘60s rather than a play explicitly about them; the presence of radical change is largely felt through sidelong references to “The Cities,” the dismissal of vegetarianism, and unconventional promotional events for the church.
In many ways, I couldn’t help but feel this is what made the play a perfect fit for the modest, understated beauty of the South Park Theatre, itself an oasis from the cynicism and stark social commentary in other local theater scenes. This desire to celebrate the uncelebrated permeates Rick Campbell’s direction. I think of the stage design, a simple and convincing basement kitchen, which comes armed with a door that really, really sticks. It is only verbally acknowledged once or twice, but this simple and recurring problem with the kitchen does so much to breathe life into the space. I also think of the presence of how the often imitated Upper Midwestern English (re: the Fargo accent) is unevenly distributed between each actor, reappearing only occasionally, but I was given the distinct impression that this was not a subject of concern for Campbell. This is a play about the characters of and relationships between the four ladies; every other element is therefore secondary.
This method of directing ensures the play is always right-side up, but I would’ve appreciated closer attention to comedic timing during scenes of dialogue. While the performers nail virtually every song sent their way, both in terms of vocal performance and musical punchlines, comedic exchanges were sometimes arrhythmic in nature. This was especially true during scenes in which all four women were necessary to make a joke land. While I never doubted the sincerity of the characters or their relationships with one another, I couldn’t help but want for greater attention to detail here.
As the play is dedicated to character interaction, no element is more valuable here than performance. The play opens, strangely enough, with a song performed by Bob Ference as Pastor Gunderson, AKA the one character who is not a basement lady. Besides being a strange thematic choice, Bob Ference has the vocal stylings of a true pastor, leading me to make a variety of assumptions regarding the Kirk Howe’s musical direction and Drew Janson’s songwriting – but the play quickly puts the titular four onstage, and my mind was quickly put at ease. Besides having natural chemistry as actors, Christine Elek, Meghan Child, Kathy Hawk and Alexis Hawk effortlessly filled the room over and over again with pitch perfect vocal harmonies and character-driven musical asides.
Each of the ladies inhabits her role in an earnest and easygoing way. Meghan Child, playing a character who largely acts as the play’s problem solver, has a presence that is simultaneously bold and unassuming, perfect for the calloused hands of Mavis Gilmerson. I was impressed by Child’s ability to capably portray someone who is a hardworking mechanic who also breaks into beautiful harmonies on occasion.
The mother-daughter pair of Karin Engelson and Signe Engelson are played by real life mother-daughter pair Kathy Hawk and Alexis Hawk (respectively). The natural, real-world chemistry between these two performers does a great job at elevating the characters’ relationships from believable to totally natural. In addition, Kathy Hawk has awesome range as a vocalist. Despite the fact that she often acts as a bridge between these three generations of women, the friendly but firm nature of her character unfortunately leaves little room for standout moments outside of her musical ability.
Alternately, Alexis Hawk’s character, a young adult balancing an old-school church lifestyle with her actual-school university lifestyle, is often the unintentional instigator of conflict. It says a lot about the play that Hawk, despite being at the heart of the play’s central conflict, is also a force of unrelenting joy. I think the play would lose quite a lot without the energy and elation of her performance.
Christine Elek, as Vivian Snustad, navigates the space between frustrating traditionalist and likable matriarch with ease, although her interactions are largely defined by her negativity. Despite the fact that she has the least control over the plot, it is Elek’s portrayal of a woman trying to navigate a suddenly uncertain future that will leave the biggest impression on the audience.
There is a scene early in Church Basement Ladies in which Pastor Gunderson laments the loss of a close friend. It’s a simple, understated moment of loss, beautifully underscored by the live music of Kirk Howe and Leo Stankus. Bob Ference’s performance is simple and understated, greatly benefiting from the presence of the ladies as backup. Put succinctly, this moment of loss, while heartfelt, is still very much a positive recollection of the life of a friend, and it eventually paves the way for the play’s greatest song, the tongue-in-cheek “Dead Spread.” Even during Church Basement Ladies’ most tragic, it is a force of pure positive energy. This is a play designed to, in every facet of its being, simply make its audience smile. In a world perpetually under the shadow of some inescapable threat, there is something to be said for that.
Special thanks to the South Park Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo! Church Basement Ladies runs through July 16th, tickets and more information can me found here.