THEATER | Plymouth Playhouse’s “Away in the Basement” recruits the Church Basement Ladies for feel-good holiday entertainment


Playing at Plymouth Playhouse for the holiday season is Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas. This production is the third in the series inspired by the book Growing Up Lutheran written by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, both 100% Norwegian-Lutheran themselves. 

Away in the Basement finds the church ladies in 1959 completing preparations for the Sunday school Christmas program. The church has Helen, a new intern from the Bible college, helping out with the production this year. The pastor’s wife, who always ran the program, passed away several years ago and everyone has welcomed Helen into the fold and appreciates her assistance, except for Vivian Snustad (Robbie Mancina), who is skeptical of the changes Helen is introducing.

Having grown up German Catholic in New Ulm, Minnesota, the most German community in the United States, I was smart enough to realize that I needed to bring along an interpreter. I invited my friend Georgia, a Norwegian-Lutheran. She helped me understand the references to the red hymnal, egg coffee, avoiding the Catholic grocery store, and the use of the term “This is most certainly true!” She was able to participate as the audience was invited to join in singing “Jeg Er Sa Glad” and it was obvious that hearing this song brought back memories of her own Christmases growing up. She did feel that there were too many Catholic jokes but she was maybe just being sensitive to my feelings. I enjoyed the references that I could actually relate to.

away in the basement: a church basement ladies christmas, playing through january 24 at the plymouth playhouse. for tickets ($20-$38) and information, see

I really enjoyed the song “Just Not Mary Material” sung by Mavis Gilmerson (Greta Grosch) as she remembered always being cast as a shepherd rather than as Mary in the Christmas program. Grosch’s comedic talents serve the show well, particularly as she leads the rest of the cast through this song and “Reindeer Rendezvous.” There were sentimental moments in the show too, with my favorite being the pastor (Tim Drake) stepping outside and singing “I Think You’d Like Her” to a picture of his wife as snow falls lightly on his shoulders. This song references the attraction the Pastor is beginning to feel for Helen, and Drake is able to truly portray the mixed emotions he is feeling as he realizes it is time to move on with this life.

This fledging romance in the pastor’s life inspires mixed reactions from the church ladies, ranging from Mavis’s encouragement and good-natured ribbing to Vivian’s concerns.  Drake does a great job of moving the story forward as he moves in and out of the basement during the show. Georgia felt that he did a wonderful job of portraying the quiet, reassuring pastor whose role it is to keep the peace and play no favorites among the ladies (although the cast notes reveal that he grew up Catholic in a small town in Wisconsin).

In addition to Mavis and Vivian in the kitchen, there is 15-year-old Beverly (Tara Borman) and her mother Karin Engelson (Roxanne Britz). Beverly is ready to shed her role as Mary in the pageant and grow up and move on while Karin is the quiet hard worker who avoids attention and just wants everyone to be happy. Although rehearsals are going on, Beverly seems to be spending alot of time in the kitchen. Finally she is asked why she isn’t rehearsing and her response is, “I am playing Mary in a Lutheran Christmas program”—which everyone in the audience is able to relate to. The finale number brings together all the loose story lines in a funny way that I won’t spoil for you.

At this time of the year paticularly, it is good to be able to go back in time and relive our childhood memories and times when life seemed to be simpler. If you are looking for some feel-good entertainment that will leave you smiling, this is the show for you.

This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.