Theater Review: ‘QUILTERS’

A Compelling Drama Sews the Fabric of Life

‘Strumming my pain with his fingers,’ a lyric from Roberta Flack’s 1973 hit song, describes so well the life challenges the women in ‘Quilters’ recount to the audience in the course of the musical now playing at the Morgan Wixson through April 4. Written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, the Tony-Award winning ‘Quilters’ tells the story through music, dance, song, words and quilting, of the pioneer women who immigrated to and settled this country. Using the metaphor of a quilting bee, the play assembles a quilt, each piece a chapter in these women’s lives. Each square speaks to the hard times and life-threatening episodes, relived by serendipitous humor. The story opens on a stage featuring a tableaux of pioneer activities that make up life on the prairie. The matriarch of the family, Sarah (Harriet Losin) declares the quilt she’s working on will be her last, a family album of sorts that holds moving snapshots of her and her family’s experiences. The play is structured as one would piece together a quilt; each square represents a different story which is brought to life through song and dance. Vignettes range from weathering the harsh elements, such as tornadoes and drought, to the perils of bearing children. ‘Our ninth died of cholera,’ one character says, listing her offspring along with other prairie wives. ‘The 10th and 11th were the twins.’ Jody (Lauren Perry) wants to end her pregnancy because of the undue economic hardship on the family, but her doctor refuses to help. A well-meaning friend sends her an herbal solution to the problem which ends up being torture. No doubt life was tough for these sturdy pioneers. But, the play is relieved by the sweet voices of the performers and a fair share of humor. In one sequence, a mother tells her daughter in a fabric shop that they can get only a bit of the bright red calico she likes. ‘You know your father,’ she says. But her father, a Baptist minister reveals his devil-may-care side and buys them the entire bolt. Then there is little sister Dana (Megan Burns) who splashes a bit of vinegar on her older sister’s sweet Sunbonnet Sue quilts, which show sunny characters in wholesome variations of a watering can pose. Dana’s own version would have had Sue bitten by a snake, struck by lightning and stabbed through the heart. Director Anne Gesling has put together a strong cast of women, who through a variety of roles (men’s parts, too), tell the moving story from the snapshots of 19th-century lives. Of particular note are Sarah Jay, a senior at Hamilton Academy of Music, who plays Janie, and Hamilton junior Lauren Perry, who plays Jody. Each of these young women possess beautifully trained voices and accomplished acting skills. The onstage music (Dana McElwain on piano, Anne Gesling on flute/percussion and Mike Brick on banjo) infuses the stories with a sparseness to match the strong-willed women of the era. ”Quilters continues through Sunday, April 4, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $12 for students. Contact: 828-7519.