This weekend, WILLow LeaVes of Hope welcomes the debut of the musical comedy “Church Basement Ladies,” presented by the Actors’ Studio of Hope.

The play, which opens at 7 p.m. Friday, is set to run through this weekend and next, says producer Naomi Fleetwood-Pyle.

Two years in the making, Pyle and the Actors’ Studio of Hope finally acquired the rights to perform this Broadway hit that spawned a half dozen sequels since its off-Broadway premier in 2005, including “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping” and “The Last (Potluck) Supper.”

“This has been a step out of my comfort zone, as far as directing a play because it is a musical,” Pyle says. “And it has singing and dancing but, of course, it is a comedy because I love comedy.”

Historically, the comedies presented by the Actors’ Studio, which are handpicked by Pyle, are not only funny, but have an underlying message that is nestled in warm, fuzzy feelings, Pyle says. And this show is no different.

Inspired by the 1997 book “Growing Up Lutheran,” written by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, “Church Basement Ladies” is set in rural Minnesota in the basement of the East Cornucopia Church of the Prairie in the 1960s.

The two-hour long play chronicles the friendship and camaraderie of four ladies who are putting together a funeral dinner following the death of Willie, a beloved church member who was always in charge of fixing things and ringing the church bell, Pyle says.

Pyle, who plays Mavis, the patriarch of the group, is very much a traditionalist in her beliefs and does her best to help steer the other ladies in the Lutheran way. However, she has issues of her own that she juggles, including navigating life changes like dealing with hot flashes that force her to climb into the kitchen’s freezer for relief, Pyle says.

“The ladies absolutely love each other and they love the church,” she says. “They take one another in stride and it is a lovable friendship.”
Columbus resident Falicia Whited portrays Signe, the youngest lady of the group, who is home to visit from her time away at college.

When she returns, Signe has a lot of ideas to share with the church ladies that she has become enlightened to during her time away, including how the ladies can get more in step with the current times.

“She has a bit of sass to her,” Whited says. “She is respectful, but questioning, which makes her a fun character to play.”

Whited admits she too is very opinionated and if there is one thing Signe has taught her it is how to take a deeper, more mindful look at how she approaches others sometimes.

But above all, her role has certainly shone a light on the importance of having fun no matter what you do.

All the play’s cast, including Pyle, agree this production has presented a common challenge. Singing.

“I haven’t sang for a long time,” says Kristy Kelley, who plays Vivian. “For me, that is a different set of nerves. It is one thing to act in front of people, but when you combine singing, that amplifies it.”

Hope resident Pete Law, who portrays Pastor Gunderson, says the Minnesota backdrop has allowed him to perfect his best “FARGO” accent.

“I wanted him full on Minnesotan, so that’s how I am playing him,” Law says. “Usually, you worry about lines, but with this play you have to be aware of everything. And I enjoy the challenge of putting singing, dancing and dialogue all together.”

No matter what one’s denomination, Law says everyone can relate to the church ladies to some degree.

“You always knew the ladies who ran the church kitchen,” he says. “And everyone can relate to the seriousness those ladies took to feeding the congregation.”

As the cast preps for opening night, they are hopeful the show is memorable for all who attend.

“Life is so heavy nowadays we want everyone to come out for a good meal, have a few laughs and leave feeling a bit lighter than when they came in,” Kelley says.