Wayside’s ‘Church Basement Ladies’ frontlines month of comedies at area theaters

By Josette Keelor

Area playhouses turn to old standards for their first plays of the summer, with music and comedy setting the stage for deeper truths of family, devotion and the importance of home.

One of the oldest professional theaters in the Shenandoah Valley, Wayside Theatre in Middletown will kick off its 52nd season this weekend with the musical comedy “Church Basement Ladies,” with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen and book by Jim Stowell and Jessica Zuehike.

Based on “Growing Up Lutheran,” by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, the musical is similar in theme to “Steel Magnolias,” following the several years in the lives of four women who bond in the kitchen.

Newcomers Jill Stapleton Bergeron, Barbi McGuire and Michael Parker join Wayside favorite Thomasin Savaiano and intern Leslie Putnam, who also is the show’s choreographer.

Music Director Steve Przybylski plays the church pianist.

As Vivian, Stapleton Bergeron is at the top of the kitchen pecking order.

“She’s been in the kitchen most of her life, running it,” Stapleton Bergeron said. “It’s the place where she feels like she belongs.”

“She’s very conservative and very rule oriented, is not happy with a lot of the new changes are happening in the church,” she said.

“That’s right,” Savaiano said, “how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” pausing, then adding, “Change?”

As Mavis, McGuire is “the worker bee of the kitchen.”

“She has a lot of physical comedy in this show,” McGuire said.

Savaiano’s character Karin has her teenage daughter Signe in the kitchen with her, while Signe, played by Putnam, is home on breaks from college in “the city” — Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Savaiano said Karin spends much of the show “keeping the oldest generation and the youngest generation from butting heads.”

Pastor E.L. Gunderson, played by Parker “doesn’t like conflict.”

“He knows everything that’s going on, but he’s clueless,” Parker said.

What Director Warner Crocker found most telling of the plot line is that Signe chooses to return to the church kitchen on school breaks rather than hang out with friends. It’s the 1960s, a time of great change in America, Crocker said, and the church kitchen symbolizes home.

It’s a theme Wayside resurrects quite often in its plays and musicals, he said.

“If there’s a place that you can call home, whether that’s family, whether that’s a kitchen, you know, whatnot, then that’s ultimately what matters,” he said. It’s not always a physical location either. It’s “an internal place where we can call home,” he explained.

“In the end, they all really, really care for each other in a way that’s very family-like,” he said. “You could say that’s rolled up in the church, but I think it extends beyond the church.”

Said Savaiano, “I kind of imagine that they spend more time with each other than with their family,” but Putnam countered, “They are a family.”

Crocker said he expects “Church Basement Ladies,” the first in a series of four, will be something almost anyone can relate to — for four reasons:

“It is just a fun musical comedy,” he said. Plus, it has “a wonderful homey element to it.” The Northern Shenandoah Valley’s large Lutheran population is a plus, he said, but “If you’ve been involved in a church kitchen, in a volunteer fire department kitchen … you’re going to find a lot of things familiar in this musical comedy. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Set in rural, middle-of-nowhere Minnesota in a largely Lutheran community, the play represents America in general, Crocker said, remembering a line from Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly.”

“You’re from Brooklyn, you don’t know from the South,” Crocker quoted.

“Honey,” says a second character, “there’s Manhattan, there’s a couple neighborhoods in Boston. Everywhere else is the South.”

Wayside’s summer musical comedy “Church Basement Ladies” will run from June 1 to 30, with performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 6:30 p.m. on opening night, June 2. There will be no 2:30 p.m. matinee on June 2. Tickets are $25 to $30 for adults, $23 to $30 for students and seniors, and $10 for children 5 to 17. For more information, call 540-869-1776 or visit www.waysidetheatre.org.

The Schultz Theatre in New Market will perform Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” for the next two weekends.

Directed by Alan Wiecking, the classic comedy tells the story of two men both pretending to be people they aren’t in order to avoid having to attend social obligations.

First performed in 1895, the three-act play takes place in Victorian England.

Performances will be Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., May 31 to June 9. Reserved tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors, and at the door are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. The Schultz Theatre is located at 9357 N. Congress St., New Market. For more information, call 540-740-9119 or visit www.schultztheatre.com.

The youth theater play “Hyronomous A. Frog: The real story of the frog prince,” by Edith Weiss, will take the stage at The Schultz Theatre June 28 and 29.

Directed by Debbie Stevens and Joanne Thompson, the play follows a frog who learns he’s really a prince. In trying to win over the beautiful but petulant Maid Gladiola so she’ll kiss him and reverse the spell, he must contend with her fiance Sir Lancelot Pancelot of Spamelot and the frustration that comes with being a human in a frog’s body. By befriending handmaiden Delphinium and her Aunt Queen Bea, he might just have a chance for his happy ending.

Catered by Shaffer’s Catering in Woodstock, the play will be $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, $20 for students older than 12, $15 for children age 12 and younger and $10 for balcony seats without dinner. The Schultz Theatre is located at 9357 N. Congress St., New Market. For more information, call 540-740-9119 or visit www.schultztheatre.com.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com