It would be a mistake to think of Quilters as a play — rather, it is a metaphor for the lives of pioneer women of the 19th century Midwest. There is no traditional story arc and the only constant in the casting is Marilyn Foote in a masterful performance of quiet strength as Sarah, the character who represents this metaphorical life. While the narrative is Sarah's, Quilters, now playing at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, speaks to the experiences of everywoman through a series of vignettes performed in song and spoken word by the multigenerational ensemble cast that includes Cosmo Bernstein, Lillian Braunstein, Jenna Donahue, Emma Johnstone, Lynn Kerman, Jane McCaffrey, Cara O'Doniel, Kaitlen Osburn and Amethyst Shelton.
Quilters is derived in part from The Quilters: Women and Domestic Arts by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, and in performance it feels more like a book brought to life than a play written for the stage.
The first act of Quilters builds a foundation for the women's lives, charting the joys and sorrows of the journey west and the milestones — and rebellions — of girlhood ("have you started yet?" becomes a heartfelt competitive motif at one point). We learn the importance of the scrap bag and what its contents represent, the central role quilt creation plays in family life, how pieces come together to become quilts and the "family album" role of Sarah's final quilt — the sum of what she can leave to the world upon her death.
The second act, in which the women reach maturity, shifts away from the controlled performances of Act One into far more emotional territory, verging on the apocalyptic in places. The true hardship of pioneer women's lives is front and center: too many children, husbands lost too early, wars, natural disasters and constant starting over. There is an almost biblical feel to the cycle of life and death. As Sarah concludes, "Man proposes and God disposes" (but she still refuses to be buried in her best quilt).
The entire cast of Quilters is solid, with particularly strong performances coming from Lynn Kerman as she sets forth an alternate future for an older woman in pioneer days, Kaitlen Osburn as a woman dealing with the many facets of motherhood, and Marilyn Foote as the central thread that is Sarah. On opening night, some of the vocal work was still coming together, with a few of the younger performers not yet fully at ease with the lyrics; Cara O'Doniel set the standard for strong vocals and hopefully the others will match her performance as the run continues.
The piece was originally written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek for a cast of seven. The original director of the Ferndale Rep production, Sarah McKinney, chose to expand the size of the ensemble to support the demands of the songs' complex harmonies — some with as many parts as performers. When McKinney had to step away for family reasons, fellow Dell'Arte alum and musician extraordinaire David Powell stepped in and continued with the broader-based cast. The result is a production that is multi-dimensional in a way that truly reflects the grounding role quilting played in the lives of these women.
Music Director Laura Welch and her team of musicians (Charlie Sleep on guitar, Evan Morden on fiddle, Jim Case on guitar, banjo and mandolin, and Marla Joy and David Powell alternating on bass) add depth and atmosphere to the songs, enhancing the storytelling without intruding on the stories themselves. Alexandra Blouin's choreography is also restrained enough to give the characters room to express their emotions without turning the production into a giant hoedown. The set and lighting design by Liz Uhazy is appropriately bare bones, with changes of scene expressed through creative use of lighting, enabling the audience to focus on the words.
Costume Designer Cindy Shepard has kept the clothing sufficiently generic to convey time and place while allowing the performers to shift among characters as the stories demand. Emma Johnstone in particular makes good use of this flexibility in her alternate role as the representative male character. Rebecca Albee's role as Properties Designer is key; every quilting piece, displayed in its representational vignette, must eventually come together to complete Sarah's life story. It is a triumphal, almost magical ending — the ultimate symbol of pioneer womanhood.
Quilters is not a play. It's not a musical. It's not even "a play with music," as some have described it. It is a moving and impassioned mosaic that captures a way of life by turns harsh and rewarding, loving and fearful, but with one consistent, underlying theme: the making of the quilt. Let the narratives wash over you and your own perspectives overlay these universal stories.
Appropriately, Quilters is sponsored in part by the Redwood Empire Quilters Guild and the group's 2017 Opportunity Quilt is on display in the theater throughout the run. Performances continue through April 2 with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
Turn off CNN for a couple of hours and enjoy the political backstabbing of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar through Saturday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Van Duzer Theatre. Call 826-3928 or visit www2.humboldt.edu/theatre.
See original pieces by faculty and the Dell'Arte Company at Keep the Fires Burning: A Dell'Arte Cabaret featuring music, dance and more on March 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
More Shakespearian historical drama comes to North Coast Repertory Theatre with the ruthless Richard III. The play opens March 23 and continues through April 13 with Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.
First-year Dell'Arte students cope with moral quandaries and tough choices in Melodrama pieces at the Carlo Theatre Thursday, March 23 through Saturday, March 25 at 8 p.m. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
The Fellini-esque silent theater troupe from Belgium Coup de Foudre presents a magical, acrobatic performance about a clown and a ballerina as part of the Family Series at the Arcata Playhouse. Catch it Friday, March 24 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 25 at 2 p.m.
Visit www.arcataplayhouse.org or call 822-1575.