|Image pulled from Walden Theatre’s Facebook page.
By Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman, Directed by Hallie Dizdarevic
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
Walden’s latest production, Quilters, is a celebration of womanhood as told through the experiences of 19th century pioneer women. Told in a series of monologues, vignettes and musical numbers, the show ties many stories of love, loss and hardship to the art of making quilts as it is passed from generation to generation.
Co-author and composer/lyricist Barbara Damashek once stated in an interview that Quilters was “a theatrical event of the early 1980s, a piece of oral history and feminist musical theater. … It was one of the earlier explorations in the ’80s of the use of oral history and monology as the source for plays.” Inspired by a project organized by the Smithsonian Institution, Quilterspremiered on Broadway in 1984. Despite a run of only 24 performances and mixed reviews, it was nominated for six Tony Awards, including best musical, best book and best score.
It tells the story of Sarah, elderly matriarch of a frontier clan who just wants to finish one last quilt while her failing body still allows it. She completes the legacy quilt with the help of her six daughters, with each block of the quilt telling another part of the story: tales of school days, courtship, marriage, childbirth, home building, bitter cold, fires and other natural disasters, and death.
Frontier women usually married very young, in their early teens most often, and typically had more than a dozen children. In those harsh times, quilting was often their only means to socialize while at the same time creating something necessary to survive the brutal winters. The facets in the quilts often served to record major events in their lives, and this mechanism of recording history piece by piece is cleverly adopted by the show’s composers as a means to drive the plot.
The result is often quite moving. Some truly harrowing stories of family members freezing to death in winter or burning up in brush fires are balanced by humorous tales of first love and courtships or entire families piling into one bed when a child has a bad dream. Particularly stirring are stories of women who realize they just cannot cope with having another child after passing the dozen mark; one woman faces losing the love of her husband when she starts refusing his advances, and another makes a horrible choice when the local doctor refuses to help her end her pregnancy.
But there are also drawbacks to the format. I believe this would have been better served in a more narrative format, and possibly as a play rather than a musical. The episodic format occasionally makes you lose track of just which character is which, and most of the songs are instantly forgettable.
The shortcomings, though, are inherent in the source material and can’t be blamed on Walden’s solid production. Director Hallie Dizdarevic has done an amazing job of staging the show on Alec Volz’s simple but effective set. She keeps the action flowing smoothly from scene to scene and has created some truly lovely visuals with her blocking. The all-student cast are mostly spot-on with their performances; the individual performers are either better actors than singers or better singers than actors, but each of them gets at least a moment to shine.
Overall it is a dramatically sound production that succeeds despite its flaws. Definitely worth a look!
Starring Chandler Dalton, Theo Edwards-Butler, Lucy Fitzgerald, Katie Horn, Bailey Lomax, Andrea Lowry, Hallie Riddick, Julia Smith, Serena Stoddard, and Taylor Thomas.
February 28 – March 9, 2013