When we last caught up with the quartet of Lutheran congregants known as the Church Basement Ladies, they were preparing for a Sunday school nativity play in the franchise's Christmas-themed installment, Away in a Basement. Outside the theater it was December 2013; onstage it was 1959, five years before the events in the first Church Basement Ladies play, which had debuted to popular acclaim at Interplayers (now The Modern) during the theater's summer session earlier in the year.
Now it's time for A Second Helping, the official Church Basement Ladies sequel. It's set in 1969, which puts it five years after the original and a decade after the prequel. Director Jeff Sanders says the internal timeline of the plays and the order in which they're being staged might be "a little bit of a head spin" chronologically, but audiences will find it easy to establish the continuity. After all, nothing much changes among these churchgoers in rural Minnesota.
Or does it?
"It's 1969, which sees this series of watershed moments for us as a country," says Sanders. "As that's happening in the much bigger world of the United States, it's happening in this little church basement as well in small, human ways. And so each character is undergoing an important change, an important epiphany that moves them forward in their lives. They were in a stasis of sorts, and now they're being pushed forward into some kind of personal progress."
As the characters undergo change, so has the cast of actors playing them. Jennifer Jacobs and Sarah Uptagrafft return for the third time as mother/daughter duo Karin and Signe (Beverly) Engleson. Jerry Sciarrio is also back for a hat trick as Pastor Gunderson. The role of Vivian Snustad, however, will pass to Melody Deatherage, its third performer in as many plays. And after two appearances as Mavis Gilmerson, audience favorite Kathie Doyle-Lipe has had to bow out due to injury; Tamara Schupman will step in.
Sanders is filling the vacant director's chair left by Michael Weaver, who oversaw both prior Church Basement Ladies productions. "It's been a nice blend between the old crew and the new crew," he says, "and I think we've had an exciting time creating something that's organic and new. I hope that's what come across to the audience, so it doesn't seem like we're just recycling bits."
Perhaps because he's coming to the play for the first time, Sanders has found unexpected delights in A Second Helping that longtime fans of the franchise will share. One of the songs, "Vivian's Bad Trip," plays on the psychedelic milieu as it describes Vivian's bold (for her, at least) trip to the Twin Cities "where all the unwashed hippies live."
"One of the big things that I told the cast and the designers was that if we're not enjoying ourselves doing this show, then there's really no point," says Sanders. "So let's bring a joyful noise to this piece and celebrate what's often uncelebrated." ♦
Church Basement Ladies: A Second Helping • Dec. 12 to Jan. 4: Wed-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $25 ($23 student/military, $21 senior, $19 junior) • The Modern Theater Spokane • 174 S. Howard • 455-7529 • themoderntheater.org