Kate Henderson, Stevie Ann Griffin, Cathy Butler-Weathersby, & Reagan Hilger-Muller. Photo: TheatreWorks of SoIn
Quilters: A Musical
By Molly Newman & Barbara Damadhek
Music & lyrics by Barbara DamashekBased on “The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art” by Patricia Cooper & Norma Bradley Allen.
Directed by Chris Bundy
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2018, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Quilters tells the stories of the comparatively free women who moved across the middle and western landscapes to face the fiercest hostilities of nature. In a word, they were pioneers, matriarchs of families that crossed the frontier and survived (although some did not) against great odds and cruel hardships. It is as homespun as they come, but over time it also has become a touchstone for the often neglected history of American women.
For the first several minutes of Quilters, it struck me as a bit chirpy and upbeat for its subject, and I worried it would remain a gloss on a rich and complex history of frontier women. Not that I expected a rough and grungy take to match the reality of that experience, but I was very aware of how clean and soft the stage appeared.
Of course, the wholesome, sensuality of fabric cuts to the heart of the motif around which the show is built: the personal, family, and cultural history of quilting, and director Chris Bundy’s set design beautifully captures that idea, as do the costumes.
Before long, however, the stories, drawn in part from letters and diaries, begin to confront the hard, brutal truths of life on the frontier and inevitably form a foundation for feminist thought. In one sequence, the eight women that form the ensemble recite a liturgy of childbirth and tragedy, naming the fourth, tenth, even eighteenth child either born or stillborn. The challenges of pregnancy in this time and place included no time off from the work of building a home and cultivating the land, and the idea of women undergoing such rigors year after year, perhaps producing as many graves as family members, is a startling reminder of how easy life is for Americans in 2018.
Eventually, this leads to some women turning to self-induced abortions in order to survive. It is here that Quilters forges it the most powerful connection between pioneer women and women of today. Less grim is the more comical examination of menstruation, which tidily encapsulates the nature of peer pressure dynamics that are still with us today.
The episodic narrative also subtly charts the growth of the nascent communities that resulted from these early settlements, building a broader historical context than the individual stories; the episodes are identified by 16 different quilt blocks that loosely follow the cycles of a community life built within nature – “The Double Wedding Rings, “The Tree of Life”.
It is a worldview resolutely white and deeply Protestant – there are references to Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran denominations, and can be seen as limiting in its way. There is no mention, for example, of the rich tradition of African American quilting dating back more than 200 years. But the show touches upon such universal themes; birth, death, renewal, and the heartbreak and tragedy that was common for the settlers. No mention is made of the indigenous Native American tribes, but we know they were there and not always welcoming.
Chris Bundy’s staging employs simple instrumental accompaniment (Music Director Cathy Ryan on piano and Troy Smith on bass doing flavorful work) and he attempts choreography (by Bette Weber Flock) that tests the limits of the shallow performance space even while remaining humble in its conception. It was most lovely and lyrical in “Windmill”.
The eight members of the cast exemplify the nature of ensemble work, achieving unison of purpose while all finding individual moments to shine. Kate Henderson was the Elder of the group, and something of a natural leader, while Natalie Minton provided the most accomplished and powerful singing voice among a cast of fine singers. Cathy Butler-Weathersby is allowed to put her comedic gifts to good use here, and Stevie Ann Griffen and Colleen McGuirk have standout moments with character monologues that deepen the meaning of the material.
But the entire group, which also includes Emily Grimany, Reagan Hilger-Mueller, and Jessica Kayrouz Ray, is strong.
Quilters ultimately positions the activity of sewing as a connective thread (excuse the pun) through generations of mothers and daughters, an action that provided an emotional foundation through extreme trial and tribulations and perhaps staved off madness and despair. It explores the idea of comfort in an unexpectedly complex and nuanced manner.
Quilters: A Musical
November 8 – 10, 15 – 17 @ 7:30 pm
& November 11 @ 2:00 pm
TheatreWorks of Southern Indiana
203 E. Main Street
New Albany, In 47150
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.