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Stitch 'n' Bitch

Theater review: Quilters


Published May 25, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

Vermont Stage Company is staging its first-ever musical -- sorry, play with music. And while the concept leaves much to be desired, Quilters at FlynnSpace is well worth a look.

The play, by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, is based on Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd's 1970s oral history entitled, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art. Newman and Damashek use scraps of documented conversations between female quilters to piece together a patterned story of life on the prairie during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Members of the cast play multiple roles, with the main action centering around one elder woman's attempt to put together a quilt with the help of her daughters. Upon completion, the "legacy quilt" will represent their lives and those of their ancestors. From this beginning, the narrative spins its way backwards, touching on numerous childbirths, living underground in a dugout and the devastation of prairie fire. Each story is introduced as a block that will ultimately be part of the finished quilt.

VSC Artistic Director Mark Nash generally guides his ensemble of seven actresses with an able hand, squeezing as much life as he can from the material, most of which is musical; there's a number almost every five minutes. A four-member female band, led by musical director Meg Willey, provides the folky accompaniment.

Ultimately, Nash's decision to present the play in the round may not have been the best one. A song sounds different when it's projected in multiple directions; the audience catches a lot of one voice rather than one complete voice. It could be argued that because the women have different stories, their distinct voices need not mesh. But it's also true that they're working together to build a whole creation -- a legacy quilt in honor of their mother -- so their singing should soar as a unit. When the ladies are arranged together singing, the effect is marvelous.

The in-the-round scenario also challenged choreographer Sebastian Ryder. The tight performance space prevents her from creating the truly original choreography the show demands. Instead, she often settles for stomping, knee slapping on stools, and clapping. The choreography doesn't detract from the production, and it does include some strong numbers, including the weaving "Thread The Needle." But in most cases -- most notably, the lively square dance that opens Act Two -- the dancers seem constricted by the circular stage.

Sight-line challenges compromise the play's most dramatic moment: the unveiling of the legacy quilt -- a glorious piece of art in itself, created by the Champlain Valley Quilters Guild. The evening builds to this "reveal," which should leave the audience awestruck. Doesn't happen.

This is not to say that the staging doesn't have some advantages. Nash creates numerous moments -- big and small -- of theatrical magic. During a song in the first act, "Are You Washed in the Blood," the actresses create a circle of flowing red cloth to symbolize a baptismal pool of blood. It would be nearly impossible to be unmoved by this stunning visual.

Similarly, one scary prairie scene takes place inside a log cabin. When the house starts creaking in the wind, all the frightened women climb into bed with their mother. Nash doesn't overplay the scene -- just leaves it plain and simple.

Each individual actress brings particular strengths to this fine cast. Their portraits of pioneer women allow the audience to not only see, but feel the hardships these females overcame through their passion for their art.

Carolyn Gordon is well-suited to the part of the matriarch whose story holds Quilters together. While Gordon was not entirely solid with her lines at Thursday evening's performance, she still managed to portray a hardened spitfire. She'll likely grow into her role as the run progresses.

Ellen McQueeney has the meatiest roles and infuses them with a fiery passion. She is riveting when she describes the lasting impact of being widowed. When she explains how she uses quilting to heal her wounds, she momentarily eclipses Gordon's passion for creating her legacy quilt. In fact, McQueeney is such a powerful presence onstage that she often seems like the narrator.

What Teri Watts lacks in vocal strength she makes up for in spirit, convincingly conveying her longing for a cowboy of her own. Charlotte Munson also gives a memorable performance, especially as a dying mute mother sewing a quilt block to pass on to her daughter. She is equally unaffected when she sings in her deeply honey-toned voice.

Susan Palmer is another effective storyteller. She can both vividly recollect an evening when cows froze in the cold and be heartbreakingly honest when telling the story of her lost true love. Elizabeth Wolf Christensen is also effective in a variety of roles.

Of particular note is Haley Rice, who is joyously infectious whenever she is onstage. With all of her roles -- ranging from a bitter girl plotting the familial "perfect revenge" to a feisty schoolboy -- she shows a tremendous capacity for versatility. Where her numerous characters could easily lend themselves to being oddballs or, even worse, perky, she effortlessly surpasses cliché to create a wonderfully diversified array of characters.

John Kiedaisch's scenic design is appropriately simple, and the lighting design by John Paul Devlin enhances the staging.

Despite its loosely stitched story, Quilters is a rare show of female solidarity. Thanks to great acting and singing, it all comes together in the end.