Like the stitches holding pieces of fabric in a quilt, the strong, brave and self-reliant pioneer women of the 19th Century were the thread that held their families together during the dusty, difficult, and often dangerous days of the harsh frontier.
Running through April 17, by the Ross Valley Players Quilters, a musical, has a theme rather than a plot. The theme is that these women were strong-willed, stoic, resilient, determined and fearless. No wimps or whining allowed. While men went off to work on the railroad, ranch, or round-up, the women, often left alone for long periods of time, ran the household and raised the children, while tending to the land, home and hearth.
Directed by Linda Dunn, who comes from a long line of quilters herself, the musical features eight women of the prairie. Matriarch Sarah, played by veteran performer Sandi V. Weldon, announces to her daughters that she is making a legacy quilt in which each patchwork block will illustrate her memories, hopes, dreams and prayers. When sewn together (“twelve stitches to the inch” is the artistic goal), this final quilt will ultimately be the story of her life.
Based on the non-fiction book, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art and adapted as a play by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, Quilters is a story of the lives these women experienced as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Quilt blocks are metaphors for moments in time and each is set to music with lyrics, both by Barbara Damashek.
Many tales are harsh and include childbirth (these women had as many as fifteen children, many stillborn), baptism, adoption, school, living underground in a dugout or above ground in a log cabin, love, marriage, illness and death. With natural disasters like twisters and fires thrown in.
Daughters Sheila M. Devitt, Kele Gasparini, Dawn Marie Hamilton, Olivia Harrison, Carolyn Montellato, Monica Turner, and Rachel Watts all play multiple roles. Under the musical direction of Gloria Wood, the Christian hymns are particularly uplifting in their harmony and other numbers have the cadence befitting a hoedown. Each solo presents a sweet, pure voice.
If there is a song that epitomizes the show, it would be the ensemble piece at the end of Act I, “The Needle’s Eye.” While participating in a quilting bee, each girl confides to the audience her love for the unseen Jamie, a charming scoundrel who, unbeknownst to the others, has been an unworthy suitor to them all.
As always with Ross Valley Players productions, the set design by Bruce Lackovic is brilliant. This time it is brilliant in its frugal simplicity, showing the rough hewn wooden fence that holds the prairie at bay, and in its inventiveness when the women hold hoops overhead to replicate the top of a covered wagon. Les Lizama’s lighting, especially with the constantly changing sky, underscores the mood of whatever story the daughters are telling and makes the prairie disasters quite believable.
There are biblical references, homilies, poems, and homespun phrases. The costumes, with long skirts, aprons, and flat boots, are as perfect as the period hairdos. Dancing takes on the simple formations of square dancing. Fabric does not just appear in scraps. Lengths of blue replicate a creek where a baptism takes place, and red the flames of a prairie fire.
The stories are not all sad; there is romance too. And comic relief is provided, often by the spunky San Francisco-based Devitt who delivers, with amusing cowboy swagger, some of the male roles, as well as the humorous pantomime of mounting and dismounting a horse.
Quilting can be a solitary art form or the focal point of a social gathering. Women carried treasured bags with scraps of fabric. And, adding another layer of meaning, the most poignant fabric pieces were from real moments in life, such as a scrap from a wedding dress or the corner of a deceased baby’s blanket. In that era, quilts were so prized that they became dowries.
Sarah tells us that each block is like a family album and each quilt pattern has the thread of somebody’s life running through it.
If you see Quilters (you should, and bring the family), besides hearing wonderfully harmonious voices, you will be served a slice of Americana. The play is sure to make audience members review their personal history and memories. And perhaps some will be inspired to make a quilt, or at least to go home and work on a scrapbook.