The “Church Basement Ladies” series is fascinated with historical context, peering in on the lives of the same group of characters as the world outside their quaint Lutheran church threatens to pass them by.
The second entry in the series, subtitled “A Second Helping,” begins in 1969, which is an important distinction: In the year that brought us Woodstock, the moon landing, the Nixon presidency, the Manson murders, the draft lottery and the premiere of “Easy Rider,” the women who run the kitchen in this small Minnesota church are going through radical changes of their own.
“Change is the essence of the play,” said Jeff Sanders, who’s directing the Modern Theater Spokane’s production of “A Second Helping.” “As America is going through these watershed moments in ’69 and ’70, in this little church basement these characters are also going through these personal watershed moments where they move forward in their lives and discover who they are and what they want.”
The eccentric Midwesterners from the earlier “Church Basement Ladies” show return, some four years after the events of its predecessor. There’s Vivian (Melody Deatherage), Mavis (Tamara Schupman) and Karin (Jennifer Jacobs), who run the church kitchen; Karin’s impressionable daughter Beverly (Sarah Uptagrafft), who shows up pregnant; and Pastor Gunderson (Jerry Sciarrio), who’s contemplating transferring churches.
Knowing the personal histories of the characters before you walk into the theater will certainly help you enjoy the show, Sanders says, but it isn’t a necessity.
“It stands on its own very nicely,” he said. “It’s immediately accessible to anyone.”
Before it morphed into the Modern, Interplayers Theatre performed both the first and third “Church Basement” installments last year, and Sciarrio, Jacobs and Uptagrafft have returned to reprise their roles. Sanders, who hadn’t seen either of the shows before taking on “A Second Helping,” said it was a fascinating experience to watch the actors pick up their characters from where they left off.
“It’s been fun to see what they brought to the table,” Sanders said. “I’ve been kind of blissfully ignorant about the past two productions, which I was happy about, because I have untainted eyes. But it’s interesting to see them deepen their connections with the roles. … The actors have really toed that delicate line, maintaining the human being and not turning into caricature.”
“A Second Helping” is, above all else, a quirky comedy, but it takes its characters seriously, and it deals honestly with themes of community, faith and personal growth.
“I think what people connect to is they recognize themselves or someone they know in these church basement women,” Sanders said. “You fall in love with them so quickly that when the sky falls in on them, it’s a punch in the gut.”
And while it focuses on change both personal and cultural, the “Church Basement Ladies” series will always appeal to audiences because it values community and friendship above all else.
“Even though the world changes, the basement and the concrete stay the same, and we lean on that to get through the hard parts of our lives,” Sanders said. “But in the end, you still walk out of the theater singing those songs and feeling good about the world. It delivers on that.”
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