“Fortress” a Strong Showing at Derby Dinner

Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace and Colette Delaney.

Rita Thomas, Tina Jo Wallace and Colette Delaney.

Some problems are far from dramatic. Some crises sneak in like a slowly gathering storm. Before you know it it’s upon you, and you’re left to figure out what to do about it.

Thus is the problem at the core of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement,” the latest chapter in the lives of the Church Basement Ladies presented by Derby Dinner Playhouse. That’s not an indictment of the plot or themes; it’s an expression of appreciation that there is an oh-so-subtle dramatic bed upon which rides one of the funniest evenings of theater I’ve had the joy to partake of in quite a while.

The Church Basement Ladies are a trio of, well, church ladies in the thick of parish life at a rural Lutheran church in Minnesota. (Fans of “A Prairie Home Companion”-style deadpan folksy ridiculousness should eat this show right up.)

Life is simple and traditional, an archetypal example of post-war Rockwell America. But the Eisenhower expressway is slowly creeping into town to connect the little ‘burg with “The Cities.” Jackie O. hairdos and the new “lingo” are becoming all the rage. The children are going through confirmation, which means they’re growing up far too fast for their parents, and the preacher is remarrying a highly suspect (Catholic!) woman.

“Fortress” is the third sequel to the original “Church Basement Ladies.” If you’re not familiar with the series, have no fear at all. The characters, relationships, period and setting are so sharply drawn that this play stands up perfectly well on its own.

Every character type is iconic. There’s Vivian (played by Rita Thomas), the widowed elder whose words you can mark as gospel about every eventuality. Mavis (Tina Jo Wallace) is the town tomboy, as zealous about her farm as she is about the minister’s wardrobe, about which she is quite hands-on.

Karin (Collette Delaney) is the picture-of-elegance homecoming queen type who could have gone on to great things – but stayed home, settled down, and never once thought of anything beyond the familiar things that make her happy. It’s her daughter, Beverly (Katelyn Webb) who is memorizing her catechism and reducing her mother to nostalgic tears at every turn. This microcosmic congregation is overseen by the affable, unflappable, slightly daffy pastor (Cary Wiger).

The Derby Dinner ensemble is harmonious on a heavenly order. Director Bekki Jo Schneider mines the substantial vein of farce inherent in the script via an ensemble with bountiful ideas, dynamite chemistry and immaculate timing. All are in fine voice as well.

The parts are as good as the whole. Thomas is a riot as Vivian, a woman who would be considered a know-it-all scold were it not for how long – and deeply – her friends have known her. A solo moment toward the end in which a bottle of blackberry brandy helps her understand that the Catholics aren’t all that mysterious and alien is a gut-busting climax to her arc.

Wallace disappears into Mavis’s down-home charm and plodding gait to get some of the biggest, longest laughs of the show.

Delaney exudes demure grace as Karin, the character most able to role with the punches of the changing times – except for a great moment of eruptive contrast regarding a parable about her mother-in-law’s peculiarities. Webb is the epitome of wide-eyed excitement and youthful anxiety as Beverly.

Wiger is a hoot as the pastor, rolling off decidedly profane (in the ecclesiastical sense of the term) jokes about Baptists in liquor stores as he shows adorably human dimensions. He’s comfortable enough with his flock to keep his guard low. Wiger also does great work in bit-character parts when we transition out of the basement in singing scenes once again well-directed by Schneider.

One of the few criticisms of the production has to be the musical numbers, which clearly and effectively convey their messages, but likely won’t leave the halls of the Playhouse on anyone’s mind or lips. But this is a play with an easy impact, an ideal piece of dinner theater for a fun night out. When much drama – and even comedy – self-consciously pulsates with message and theme, Schneider and company adhere to one of the motifs of the show, acting their way toward a way of thinking, rather than vice versa. Between a well-produced and performed comedy, the always-enjoyable pre-show vocal ensemble The Footnotes, and the high quality buffet-style dinner, “A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement” is a safe bet for a great night across the river. Check it out.

“A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement”
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
At Derby Dinner Playhouse
Playing through Oct. 5
For tickets, show times and more information, go to derbydinner.com