Church Basement Ladies: do you know what lutefisk is?

Do you know what Lutefisk is? Are you a Lutheran? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, you’re probably part of the target demographic for the musical Church Basement Ladies. If you answered “no” there are still plenty of reasons to check out this play.

Do you know what lutefisk1 is? Are you a Lutheran?

OK. If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, you’re probably part of the target demographic for the musical Church Basement Ladies showing now at the Swift Creek Mill Theater (directed by Tom Width). However, if you answered “no” then I have a follow-up question for you: Do you listen to A Prairie Home Companion?2 Yes? You are going to love Church Basement Ladies! If you answered “no”, read on.3

Will you like Church Basement Ladies? Consult this handy (unscientific) graph!

Act I

Church Basement Ladies is a play that spans several years in the lives of four women who work in the basement kitchen of East Cornucopia Lutheran Church of the Prairie. Mrs. Snustad, Mavis, Karin and Signe quickly introduce themselves along with some of the dishes they prepare for the congregation (many of which involve many, many pounds of butter). Snappy tunes about cooking together (take, for example, “The Pale Food Polka,” in which we learn that we should keep it light and keep it gray), comments about the weather (21 degrees below is “nippy”!) and dancing (even though it’s pointed out that “Oh we don’t DANCE!”) make this an incredibly warm and mid-western-y cornucopia of delight.

But in the midst of cooking their pale foods, we learn that something feels…wrong. Mrs. Snusad is the oldest kitchen lady and change is hard for her. It doesn’t get any easier when people from the city keep wanting to change things, and everyone knows that “the whole point of tradition is that you don’t go changing things willy-nilly!” It’s 1964 and sometimes people play the guitar in church. The guitar. And when someone brings vegetarian lasagna to a shared meal, everything seems to be going downhill. This is not food meant for a funeral! Vegetarian lasagna is not part of the Dead Spread. This is most certainly true.

And THEN young Signe dares to date a…shudder…Catholic boy named Patrick.4 Gracious! Signe tries to converse with Mrs. Snustad about the matter, but it’s no good. Signe feels hurt that Mrs. Snustad doesn’t approve of her, and Mrs. Snustad feels hurt that everyone and everything is changing without her and Signe doesn’t even want to date a nice Lutheran boy.

Act II

It’s Easter 1965. Signe is still seeing Patrick and now we learn that the main differences between Lutherans and Catholics are many, as we find out in the song that compares the two. For example, Catholics have miracles galore…and Lutherans have Miracle Whip!

The conflict between Mrs. Snustad and the changing world and Signe’s Catholic boyfriend still exists, but Signe pleads with Mrs. Snustad that we have to “Sing a new song.” Maybe the changes that are happening are all really the same things that have always been in the church, just to a slightly different tune. Mrs. Snustad seems to finally be warming up a little to the idea of change…just in time for Signe to get married and have to face the idea of change herself.

Why should you go see Church Basement Ladies, then? Well for one thing, the songs are catchy and funny and touching all at the same time. There’s also a bunny suit at one point. And finally, the play is a story that many people can relate to (even if you don’t fit into my tongue-in-cheek initial demographic-check), a story about intergenerational friendships between women, some overarching themes about church life and death, and the changes that arrive in life.

And Lutefisk.

And butter. Lots and lots of butter.

— ∮∮∮ —

A few notes on characters

I honestly cannot pick a favorite of the four leading women (Brian Vaughan as Pastor E. L. Gunderson is great as well, being both charming and a little frazzled). Robin Arthur as Mrs. Snustad is sunny when she is glad and when she is sad she is so dreadfully woebegone, and the audience feels her frustration keenly. Ingrid Young as Mavis is hilarious (particularly in her song “My Own Personal Island” which involves a lot of ice cubes). AnnaMarie Rossi plays Mrs. Karin Engelson with knowing wit and her motherly role to Tara Callahan’s cheeky Signe Engelson is believable and charming. I LOVED THEM ALLLLL.

A final note on demographics:

I’m pretty sure I was one of the youngest folks there (discounting grandchildren), and that’s a pity, because older folks shouldn’t be the only ones enjoying this play! They shouldn’t get to steal all the fun.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. It is gelatinous in texture, and has an extremely strong, pungent odor. Its name literally means ‘lye fish.’” 
  2. Why not??!! I want Garrison Keillor to narrate everything. I want a GPS unit with his voice telling me to turn right for some powdermilk biscuits. 
  3. My Catholic-raised husband Patrick had a good laugh over this musical (and heck, musicals aren’t even his cup of tea!), so let it be known that you don’t have to have to fit into these demographics to enjoy it. 
  4. See above comment. Maybe this is why it was all so funny to him? 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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