Quilters is a fascinating, moving musical production based on the book “The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art” by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, originally developed at The Denver Center Theatre Company in the 1980s. The musical unfolds, piece by piece, what it meant to be a pioneer woman in the early days of the United States. Not only does it highlight the concepts typically connected to that time, it does something else rather special—it connects the past, present, and future in a way that strikes at the very soul of what it means to be a woman.
Directed by Brint Learned and performed by an undeniably talented cast, Quilters will certainly surprise the audience every time. Using the motif of quilting blocks, the play visits scenes from the lives of pioneer women, from one room schoolhouses to raising a log cabin to fighting wild fires. But instead of lingering on the events themselves, the musical gives voice to the hearts and minds of the women who experienced the harshest conditions, the deepest tragedies, and the simplest joys. The small cast adds to the sense of intimacy as they tell us their stories, embroidered with the humor, vigor, and faith that was needed to thrive in the days of covered wagons and corncob dolls.
The show introduces the matriarchal character, Sarah, who explains the significance of quilting and the various block patterns women chose to use for these practical and artistic life works. Played by Mim Goloboff, Sarah, acts as the joining thread between the captured scenes of each “block.” Goloboff performs with wit, strength, and tenderness, giving a clear impression of the qualities needed by the mothers of America’s prairie lands. Sarah’s daughters take on various roles throughout, from narrator to supporting character to main character as needed. The set is used as a frame upon which different tableaux can be highlighted in their turn. With soaring, blended vocals and intense situations, the ladies of the cast truly outdo themselves over and over within the show.
Jackie DiFrangia shines with sass and sensitivity, tugging on the heartstrings with her honest portrayals of the prairie’s trials. Hannah Williams charms with her portrayals of innocence and pleasantly surprises with her flautist talents. Shelbi Guy brings brightness to each scene with clear vocals and frank humor. Evie Koh explores her breath-taking range, both vocally and emotionally, leading the audience into her scenes with a steady hand. Maria Lister Lyons gives her all, evoking heartache and laughter throughout the show, as each emotion is clearly etched on her face. Colleen O’Leary stands out as a grounding force among the cast, carrying one of the most intense scenes and complementing in others with a calm confidence. Although so much happens from quilting block to quilting block, these talented actresses give a poised and cohesive expression of feminine unity. And it cannot be said enough how perfectly blended the voices of all seven women are from beginning to grand finale.
Musical Director Alex Ulle does a beautiful job with the live ensemble. The music and choreography in Quilters is gorgeously interwoven with the rest of the play. Seemingly equal parts music and dialogue, the actual spirit of the play lives in the songs and the theme of familial community is reflected in the choreography. In a whirlwind of patterns and crescendos, the cast and musicians craft a meaningful display of the lives of these pioneer women.
Thanks to the creative vision of Learned and the faithful determination and devotion put in by the cast and crew, Quilters stands out as one of the most uniquely moving shows I have ever been privileged to see.
On top of the wonderful performance, Royce Hall for the Fine and Performing Arts on Lake Erie College campus is also hosting a display curated by the Lake County History Center (with contributions from the Western Reserve Spinners and Weavers) that takes visitors through a wraparound exhibit of textile history. From quilts hundreds of years old to 1800s fashion, from Ohio-centric stories and artifacts to locally made modern materials, this exhibit is the perfect way to appreciate on a deeper level the rich tapestry of history performed in Quilters.
With March 2nd and 3rd , as well as a matinee performance on March 4th, being the last performances of Quilters, I highly recommend seeing this marvelous and poignant musical before the final curtain. March 2nd and 3rd begin at 7:30pm, March 4th begins at 2:00pm. Come early to enjoy the exhibit. Tickets are on sale at rabbitrunonline.org or you can call (440) 428-5913.
(Please note that this show does deal with some mature themes such as death and abortion. While not the main emphasis, I advise caution for children under 13.)