'A Mighty Fortress is our Basement' brings humor to religion

Churches may not be known for the humorous events that happen within their walls, but in "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement," the Church Basement Ladies remind their audiences that a lot more goes on behind those doors than singing hymns and reci...

Greta Grosch and Janet Paone in 'A Mighty Fortess is Our Basement'
From left: Greta Grosch and Janet Paone in a scene from "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement." The show is coming to the Chester Fritz in Grand Forks on Saturday. Submitted photo.

Churches may not be known for the humorous events that happen within their walls, but in "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement," the Church Basement Ladies remind their audiences that a lot more goes on behind those doors than singing hymns and reciting prayers.

The musical comedy presented by Troupe America, Inc., based out of Minneapolis, puts the women of the church in the spotlight. As they prepare coffee and meals for the congregation, they remind us of the relationships formed, the lessons learned and the hilarious happenings that occur in a small Midwestern church.

The year is 1960, and the women of the church are in the cellar preparing for a great reconstruction. A new batch of youth are about to be confirmed, including young Beverly, who is learning the ways of the kitchen. Mavis, the able-bodied farm wife, is struggling with a new highway that's cutting through her farm. Karin, the homemaker of the kitchen, must face the fact that her daughter is growing up. And, Pastor is getting married.


The play "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement" is the fourth installment of the Church Basement Ladies, which was first adapted from the books "Growing Up Lutheran," by Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson.


The first show in the series, "Church Basement Ladies," premiered in 2005 at the Plymouth (Minn.) Playhouse.

"It became an instant hit," said director and producer Curt Wollan. "We were doing 12 shows a week with two casts because of the demand. It ran that way for two years."

After the success of the first show, a sequel titled "A Second Helping," premiered in 2008; then, a holiday show titled "A Church Basement Ladies Christmas" premiered in 2009.

Now, the fourth installment, "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement" is on its national tour, while the fifth and final installment "The Last (Potluck) Supper" is being performed at Plymouth Playhouse.

Wollan said about 250 women have played the roles of the Church Basement Ladies throughout the years. And several men have played the Pastor and other male characters including several notable actors: William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy in "M.A.S.H.," and Barry Williams, known for his role as Greg Brady in the "Brady Bunch."

All three previous shows have stopped at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on their tours, and Wollan said they've built a good audience and fan-base in the area.

"They've all been very popular, and I think part of that is that one of the authors of 'Growing Up Lutheran' is from Hillsboro, so it has a very rural North Dakota feel to it," said Betty Allan, director of the Chester Fritz Auditorium, who has seen all the shows. "I think there's a lot of people in our region who have grown up going to those small churches, and they had those ladies that ran the church dinners."

Allan said she'll be out of town for a conference, but her parents will fill her in about the show.


"My parents have come to all of them, and they're extremely excited to see the show," she said.


Wollan said he believes the show has been such a hit because it's relatable.

"What people enjoy most about these shows, besides the humor and the "I Love Lucy," feel to it is that they can relate to these women," he said. "They know them; they're their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts. They exist to you today in different organizations."

Tim Drake, who plays the Pastor as part of the original cast, agreed saying the show really resonates with anybody who goes to church in the Midwest.

"My mother is a church basement lady," he said. "Whether you're Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian ... they all have the ladies who work in the church and help with the cleaning and making the meals, with weddings and funerals."

Drake has been involved in the Church Basement Ladies from the very beginning and said people have really become attached to the show's characters.

"Women come to these shows, and they see people they know," he said. "They have become invested in these characters. They look upon them like they're family, and they know them so well."


He added that whether or not one has seen the previous shows, she'll understand the show.

"It's fun to know the characters from previous shows, but you can come in not having seen any of them and have a good time," Wollan said. "We made a good effort to make sure the shows could stand on their own."

Real stories

Aside from the realistic characters, the stories are also real. The writers of the original book wrote about their experiences growing up in their Lutheran Church and shared others' stories that they'd heard during the years. Wollan took those stories and turned it into the first play with the help of many writers and actors.

Although it was his idea to adapt the books, he said a lot of people have become involved in writing the stories and scripts for the series.

"We all sit together in the writing meetings and throw around ideas and talk about our pasts ... do a lot of laughing," he said. "(Greta Grosch) writes everything down and puts it into a script."

Drake added: "It's been a really collaborative process. She's been really open to our ideas; in fact, she welcomes them."

Together, Drake said they've created a show that people love because it's relatable, it's nostalgic of church life in the '50s and '60s, and "it's very, very funny."


Although their target audience is women older than 40, Wollan said they always have a wide range of audience members from 20- to 30-somethings, to groups of elderly women.

"We get all kinds in the audience," he said. "And we never disappoint because it's generally really funny."

If you go:

• What: Troupe America, Inc. presents The Church Basement Ladies in "A Mighty Fortress is Our Basement."

• When: 3 p.m. Saturday.

• Where: Chester Fritz Auditorium, 3475 University Ave., Grand Forks.

• Cost: $25 to $30.

• Info: (701) 777-4090.


Maki covers arts and entertainment and life and style. Call her at (701) 780-1122, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1122 or send e-mail to , follow her on Twitter at @jasminemaki23 or see her blog at

What To Read Next
Get Local