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Beth Culp, left, and Kristina Stadler star as two women with little in common except their love of music in "Churchy," an original musical comedy premiering Jan. 6 in the Overture Center's Playhouse theater.

Turning a casual conversation toward religious beliefs can often result in long thoughtful silences, maybe a deep sigh and quite possibly the end of the friendly conversation.

“Churchy,” a new play with a formula of two parts comedy and one part bluegrass music, is obviously aiming for a much different response to the subject when it premieres Jan. 6 at the Overture Center‘s Playhouse.

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Beth Culp, playing the role of Sunshine, left, and Kristina Stadler, as Rayanna, wrote and perform in the bluegrass-infused play "Churchy." They'll be accompanied on stage by three members of the Oak Street Ramblers and mandolin player Bob Westfall. 

Kristina Stadler and Beth Culp, both of Madison, co-wrote the musical comedy and perform all the acting and singing. Stadler sings with Culp despite losing all of her hearing in her left ear and 60 percent in her right ear seven years ago.

The story centers around two church ladies with contrasting religious viewpoints who show up at the same time to apply for the job as music and evangelism director at a nondenominational church. They become mired in conflict after they find the church doors locked and need to wait together for the pastor to show up and let them in.

But they don’t express common reactions to the conflict such as outrage or ignoring each other. Instead, they sing beautiful harmonies together to old gospel hymns arranged into tender bluegrass songs and prove to themselves they can find a middle ground.

Stadler and Culp — both of whom include church-lady duties in their very busy lives — are accompanied on stage by four Madison musicians, including three members of the Oak Street Ramblers bluegrass group and professional mandolin player Bob Westfall.

Bluegrass is the perfect music to deliver such an important lesson, says Culp, a 42-year-old wife and mom who sings and dabbles with writing books when she isn’t home-schooling her children ages 13, 11, 9 and 7.

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Beth Culp, left, and Kristina Stadler rehearse for their original comedy musical "Churchy," about two women who at first seem to have little in common.

Stadler, 48, has two daughters, ages 17 and 10, works as a voice actor and is the children’s musical director at Midvale Community Lutheran Church.

Metaphorically, solo instruments like the banjo and mandolin create their own versions — or opinions, if you will — of the music within a bluegrass song, according to Culp. But the solos fall apart if the rest of the instruments don’t play together at the same time.

“It’s the hum of the backup instruments that makes it all work,” Culp said. “We’ve forgotten how to hum as people, as a culture, as a church, as a community politically. Nobody knows how to listen anymore and that’s what maintains the hum. We have to convert (opinions), we have to be right whether we’re talking religion or politics.”

The hum turns to silence when we shun those with whom we don’t agree. Stadler knows that all too well.

She came up with the idea for the play in early 2017 after she learned about the death of a college friend and roommate from Kansas named Jennifer. Jennifer had five children.

Stadler, who was unaware Jennifer was ill, had stopped talking to Jennifer months earlier after Jennifer expressed her support for Donald Trump during a phone conversation.

“The last words I said to her were, ‘I’m sorry, I love you, but I can’t talk to you anymore.’ And I hung up on her,” Stadler recalled.

She ignored a bevy of calls from Jennifer. Stadler finally answered her phone when she saw Jennifer’s number pop up on her phone several months later.

“It was her husband. He told me she had died from stomach cancer. She was an ultra marathoner and she was used to running 100 mile races with pain. So she didn’t know how sick she was until it was too late,” Stadler said.

Overwhelmed with guilt, Stadler called Jennifer’s mother who lives in Kansas and listened to her talk about Jennifer for two hours. After she hung up, Stadler pulled an all-nighter writing the initial script for the play.

“Jennifer’s mother is the character I play,” Stadler said.

Rayanne and Sunshine

She named her character Rayanne. Rayanne hails from the Deep South and is steeped in conservative religious values. Stadler knew dozens of Rayannes while growing up in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“Her name is a mishmash of lots of moms who loved me,” she said.

Rayanne resembles Jennifer’s mom with her physical presentation. She is glitzy with perfectly coiffed hair, a string of pearls around her neck and uncomfortable high-heeled shoes that she is constantly slipping on and off her feet.

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At the advice of a doctor, Kristina Stadler, left, brought music back into her life even after losing most of her hearing. Stadler co-wrote the bluegrass musical "Churchy" with Beth Culp.

Daughter, like mother, also was religious and, perhaps, more conservative. Stadler says the few times their opinions didn’t clash was when they’d go to church. “We didn’t have any differences when we sang together,” she said.

But Stadler learned during her phone conversation with Jennifer’s mother that she was also conflicted about her church because of how it abandoned Jennifer when she got pregnant before her junior year in college.

In the play, Rayanne is looking for a job because she has run away from the church that cast her out after it found she was standing by her pregnant, unmarried daughter.

The other character, named Sunshine, is based on a combination of traits possessed by Stadler and/or Culp. They describe Sunshine as a passionate but unlicensed theologian who is a moderate politically but her spiritual beliefs are more liberal. “She is a ray of sunshine who is trying to illuminate Rayanne’s limited perspective on what faith means,” Stadler said.

She shows up at the church wearing Birkenstocks and a hippie skirt, drinking her Kombucha tea and holding a bag of snacks.

“Sunshine started out as a mishmash of me and my mom and every kind of hippie-dippie interpreter of faith and the way we want to live our lives. But then the more Beth read it, Sunshine became more and more like Beth,” Stadler said.

Beautiful harmonies

Sunshine doesn’t convert Rayanne, which is a key element of the play. But she does prod Rayanne into explaining why the fancy country lady who is all dressed up moved away from her home and church. That leads Rayanne to ask her, “Oh, we’re sharing now, are we?”

Sunshine cries while listening to Rayanne’s story and begins singing an a capella version of “There’s a Balm in Gilead” to her. The well-known hymn refers to a Biblical reference about a spiritual medicine that heals wounded souls.

After a few notes, Rayanne showcases her Southern wit when she asks, “Can we at least sing it on key?”

“That breaks the emotion of the moment and it’s also appropriate because I won’t start it on key inevitably,” Culp said. “And so we find the right key with the band and we sing it.”

That song is a favorite of Oak Street Ramblers bass player Jeff Kunkle. He says it’s played at a point when the band is off to the side of the stage. The band gets more involved as the music plays a more integral role in the relationship between Rayanne and Sunshine.

“So we go from this kind of music in a character’s head, so to speak, to a tangible band that is playing in the moment. In terms of artistic license, it’s pretty neat,” Kunkle said.

The band takes center stage for the play’s last song — a spiritual tune called “The Good Old Way (Down in the River To Pray).” It was sung by Alison Krauss as part of a scene from the Coen brothers’ movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

“It’s not going to be a raucous hot, high-energy bluegrass song, but people know it and people can appreciate the harmonies and people can appreciate that it’s a wonderful tune, so I think there are going to be a lot of people in the audience singing along and really enjoying themselves,” says the Oak Street Ramblers’ banjo player, Mark Schlutt.

Complicated dissonance

Stadler had perfect pitch and played the piano and sang classically before her hearing loss. An invasion of distorted sounds and background noises caused by tinnitus wrecked what little she could hear in her right ear.

“I was positive that someone was firing a weapon in my ear. That’s how loud the banging was and I’d flinch every time I heard it,” Stadler said.

Stadler says she had to quit her job as a producer of children’s programming at Wisconsin Public Television. She also stayed away from music until two years later when her new ear, nose and throat doctor, Burke Richmond, at UW Hospital, told her to intentionally re-introduce it into her life.

By then she had spent hours in sound therapy that had begun to help her understand the difference between real and imagined sounds. She says Richmond told her to start listening to some of the music Beethoven composed after he started losing his hearing. The list included most of his symphonies that are full of complicated dissonant orchestrations.

“I used to hate listening to that kind of Beethoven because it wasn’t pretty and it didn’t resolve and it didn’t all end with a nice tidy bow,” Stadler said. “Now I go, ‘Oh, I see. He was trying to tell the story of the dissonance he heard all the time.’ Now I love that music.”

But it didn’t move her back to singing or playing the piano. Stadler recalled how Richmond kept pushing her to go further with her sound therapy.

Hours after Richmond told Stadler to get back into music, Stadler bumped into the pastor at Midvale Community Lutheran and she told her to apply for a part-time job at the church teaching children’s music. She suddenly felt her luck changing.

In a blink of an eye, she was teaching its children’s choir — which included Culp’s oldest daughter — how to sing “The Good Old Way (Down in the River To Pray).”

Soon after that, Stadler and Culp became friends, they started singing together and their faith strengthened as new members at Midvale Community Lutheran. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t hiding her faith, Stadler said.

But she still was having issues with her hearing. For two years, Stadler and Culp always sang a capella because the sound of instruments kept Stadler from hearing either of their voices. That was tough on Culp and her untrained voice, but she readily accepted the challenge because she has always cherished every opportunity to sing.

“Singing with Kristina is always fun and there’s always a reaction to it,” Culp said. “People we knew who don’t go to church were coming to our church to hear us sing. It was this thing for people to do.”

They have enjoyed making the transition to the stage and using their singing to help maintain the identities of Rayanne and Sunshine. That is essential, according to Culp. “We have to figure out how the harmonies fit together but they have to have their own part,” she said.

Culp believes Stadler and her college roommate found the answer to the question the play asks when they sang together in church back in their college days. “Kristina could sit next to Jennifer in church and blend back in the days when they were already diverging in their political views,” Culp said. “They could come to the music. They’d fight, fight, fight, but then they’d blend.”

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.