Home #Hwoodtimes Three church ladies find meaning in their lives amid a devastating natural...

Three church ladies find meaning in their lives amid a devastating natural disaster in “The Sandwich Ministry”

By: Robert St. Martin

Los Angeles (The Hollywood Times) 6/7/2024 – This past weekend was the opening of a new play at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz – Miranda Rose Hall’s The Sandwich Ministry. This slice of Americana takes place in a small town probably in the Midwest where three women gather in a church hall basement to make sandwiches and supply food for neighbors who have been displaced by a huge storm that has flooded many homes.

Hannah (Jordan Hull), Joyce (Jayne Taini) and Claudia (Maha Chehlaoui)

The genial elderly Joyce (Jayne Taini) is soon joined by the brisk youthful Hannah (Jordan Hull) as they contend with the damage of the storm outside and talk about its destructive effects on their own homes. They are eventually joined by a bustling middle-aged Claudia (Maha Chehlaoui), who is the more privileged wife of the church’s pastor, currently in Italy on a meditation retreat.

Torrential rains, or some other undefined event, have brought about devastating flooding in their community in a once-in-a-century storm.  Houses have been destroyed and aging neighbors left homeless. The women, who used to be close but haven’t seen each for a while, are there to make sandwiches for some of the distressed victims of the disaster.

Playwright Miranda Rose Hall

Unspoken issues abound, first from Hannah, who bears unspecified resentments against Claudia, and also from Joyce, a kind lady and dedicated churchgoer who inquires of Hannah once too often why she no longer attends services on Sunday. When Claudia shows up, it’s clear she has stuff going on, yet makes no effort to share.

In the bare 65 minutes of this one-act play, the story could use more details to better explain the grievances Hannah brings to the table. She feels that Claudia has abandoned her and that has something to do with Claudia’s personal relationship with the female pastor of the small church. Eventually we learn that Claudia is “married’ to this female pastor and has apparently found a new love interest in Italy while on a a spiritual retreat that sounds vaguely “new age.”

If this is supposed to be a play with lesbian overtones, it is downplayed so much as to almost be almost indetectable. What exactly was Hannah’s previous relationship with Claudia? We never find this out. Hannah seems to have a crisis of faith and does not attend church services anymore, preferring to focus on art classes that she gives on Sunday mornings elsewhere.

Claudia (Maha Chehlaoui) with Joyce ((Jayne Taini)

At its very core, The Sandwich Ministry is about “community” and how churches provide a sense of community that ties people together in a way that is, in some ways, more important than the issues of personal faith. The themes are filtered through three interesting women characters, whose secrets and woes are easy to grasp.

The performances are engaging; Hull shapes Hannah with her signature energy and disingenuous charm, while Chehlaoui, with the meatiest, most conflict-laden role, delivers an affecting emotional dynamic. Taina is well-cast as a warm, well-meaning, if sometimes clueless Joyce, but her devotion to the church is never explored in any depth.

Hannah making Sandwiches in the Church Fellowship Hall

Exactly what kind of “community” does this church represent for the three women? Was it held together for years by a dynamic female pastor who happened to be a lesbian who suddenly found herself disinterested in the church congregation that she left behind in heading off to Italy? We never know and we only have the three church ladies left trying to sort out their relationship with the church and the meaning of their faith.

As a slice of Americana, I found The Sandwich Ministry interesting but a bit unfocused. It reminded me of how many people get involved in church activities as a social outlet that makes them feel “connected” to religion and their sense of faith. But, there is no soul-searching here, only a sense of the need for “connectedness” that many people have and hope to find in church activities.

Claudia (Maha Chehlaoui), the middle-aged _wife_ of female pastor

Director Katie Lindsay has tried to make The Sandwich Ministry come to life on stage with the help of scenic designer Carolyn Mraz, who has created a believable replica of a church fellowship hall, utterly lackluster and utilitarian, with its bright overhead lights and décor-free ambience.

With fine effort by the actors, the play attempts to capture the almost desperate need for that “connectedness” on the part of the characters. Perhaps too much is left unsaid or undeveloped, and the play seems like it needs to be reworked a bit. I left with a sense of the failure of contemporary churches to meet the needs of people today and with no way to really do it.

The three women finding connection in their church work making sandwiches during a storm black-out

Playwright Miranda Rose Hall has written commissioned works for Yale Repertory Theater, Playwrights Horizons Soundstage, Baltimore Center Stage, Concord Theatricals, and LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater as a Berwin Lee New York London Commissioned Playwright. In 2020, she was honored with a Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award. Her plays include A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction. Her play Plot Points in Our Sexual Development was a finalist for the 2019 Lambda Literary Award in Drama). She also wrote The Kind Ones and Menstruation: A Period Piece.

The Sandwich Ministry is at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz through July 7 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm.; on Sundays at 3:00 p.m.; and Mondays at 8:30 pm. Tickets may be purchased on the Skylight Theater website.