“The Last (Potluck) Supper,” final installment in the “Church Basement Ladies” series, is a down-home charmer that will be resurrected in the future. Just like its siblings.
This play, by Greta Grosch and featuring music and lyrics by Drew Jansen, has understated humor that befits its subject. It is set a century after some taciturn Norwegians founded East Cornucopia Lutheran Church. With attendance dwindling and shrinking offerings in the collection plate, the congregation has voted to disband. Naturally, this development saddens the faithful diehards, including the women who have staffed the basement kitchen all these years — Vivian Snustad (Janet Paone), Mavis Gilmerson (Greta Grosch), Karin Engelson (Dorian Chalmers) and her daughter, Beverly Hauge (Tara Borman).
The women are pillars of support for Pastor Gunderson (Tim Drake), who has returned from ministering in the cities all gather one last time around the stove that’s tricky to light to remember the church history and to share anecdotes about their service before the auctioneer sells off whatever remains of their sanctuary.
The whole “Church Basement Ladies” series, from the original to a Christmas special to this, is based on Janet Martin’s and Suzann J. Nelson’s book, “Growing Up Lutheran.”
This production, staged efficiently by director Kurt Wollan, moves with confidence.
We are accustomed to seeing of lot of razzle-dazzle and pizazz in shows with music, often delivered by buff gym rats and propulsive dancers. The pleasures of “The Last Supper” come from us knowing its subject well. We laugh with these characters as they reveal their foibles. We root for them as they go through their sadness. And we applaud them as they turn at the end away from sorrow and move on to a hopeful future.
Paone’s Vivian is the anchor of the story. She has the most to lose. She is a widow whose family donated the land on which the church sits. Vivian has a male friend who has been proposing to her for years, yet she will not consent to marriage. She does not want to “kill” another husband.
Yet in the end, she embraces the future with an open heart and joy.
Grosch is a fearless physical performer who goes to unexpected places in “The Last Supper.” When her character steals into the basement for one last memory before the end, you half expect her to only go halfway through the act. But she commits fully and earns her laughs.
The other members of the cast are commendable as they imbue their characters with empathetic understanding. With costume changes and vocal shifts, Drake credibly delivers a variety of male characters, including the fast-talking auctioneer. Chalmers invests Karin with a reserve that is apt, even if it does not endear us to her officious character. And Borman makes the most of an underwritten contemporary mom with rambunctious (unseen) boys.
Some churches change very little over time, and it’s true of this one, where characters often say, “Oh, I think I was wearing the same dress” in flashbacks to decades ago. It works well, not just for theater but to show the insularity of a sanctuary that is often impervious to the outside world.
“Last Supper” is set in 1979 and the only hint of that era comes through a medley of songs that quote “I Will Survive” and “Last Dance.” Both are true for “Last Supper,” which, like its siblings, will probably go on tour and be seen by millions.