Quilts, or at least the ones in the period musical Quilters, are the stained-glass windows of the young American West. While the windows note the passage of time within a certain monumental event in human history, the quilts are no less important to the women who created them as they blazed 19th-century trails from Kansas to California. Every pattern, color, stitch and pricked finger represents the memory of a life transition within a family—and when your kids are mostly pioneer daughters, the transitions add up.
Ask Sarah McKendree Bonham about that. She had six girls and figures she’s pieced around 100 quilts in her lifetime; one of them, she says, took 25 years to complete. She’s logged a cavalcade of births, courtships, marriages, old age, seat-of-the-pants medicine, adverse weather, infant mortality, fatal fires, miracles, sicknesses and deaths behind these hue-swept records of pioneer life—and the Quilters currently running at Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Coronado venue is a perfectly fine representation of not only the era but also the girls’ exhaustive resilience amid their deep love of and devotion to their craft.
The term “musical” might be a little misleading here. Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek’s play is more like a script with music, the kind Bertolt Brecht or Benjamin Britten used to write. Each of the tunes features mostly the same singers, and the songs are presented more or less incidentally. But their importance is as keen as the quilting itself, bonding this exceedingly close family in spite of the generous streaks of disparity the writers have given them. One kid (Cynthia Gerber) wants to be a doctor, and she clearly has the piss ‘n’ vinegar for med school; another (Jessica Cuoto) is a sunny, towering figure of grace and reflection amid life’s unending hardships; a third (Lucia Vecchio) wears a runt-of-the-litter complex on her sleeve, notably during a cute scene in which she fervently prays for the onset of her first period so she can be one of the girls.
Bonham herself (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) sits squarely in the center—she’s a grizzled, almost swarthy matriarch who’s earned her lofty status through aggravation alone. Life’s crushing burdens are no match for her archivist’s temperament; she loves quilting the way she loves her girls, regarding one as a subset of the other. Those burdens, she figures, are God’s homework, and she cheerfully aces each and every course.
Except when she doesn’t. This script can come dangerously close to running over itself more often than not—one scene in which the family weathers a twister and another that recounts one daughter’s 16 pregnancies, for example, cover more than we need as they almost wander off point. Some immutable force seems to rescue those scenes just in time—if it’s not the quilts’ striking layouts and broad-brush color schemes (especially readable in the show’s marvelous final tableaux), it’s director Robert Smyth’s lofty sense of crescendo, diminuendo and the ensemble culture it takes to create each.
Megan Carmitchel and Caitie Grady round out the cast amid their exceedingly friendly performances and Pamela Turner and Gilmour Smyth’s smart choreography. How everybody holds up after dancing around the stage in those period boots is anybody’s guess; maybe Jeanne Barnes Reith, the unrivaled costumer, has outfitted them with an insert or two.
Carrie Sefcik’s set features an interesting treatment in the form of a slatted backdrop, unobtrusive enough to catch the hues off Nathan Peirson’s nice lights yet imposing enough to remind us we’re watching a play.
Emilie McDonald’s happy violin is central to the five-member band’s country-dance treatments. It works the way the show’s other elements work; each hand washes the other in an exemplary show of common purpose (and Smyth has likely lifted a page or two from his company’s playbook, as this is Lamb’s’ second shot at the show in the last 25 years). To the quiltmakers in the audience, this piece is likely a page out of history amid the pioneer settings and the soaring spirits—to the laity, it’s an object lesson in the quiltmakers’ singular grasp of the past.
This review is based on the matinee performance of March 30. Quilters runs through April 27 at the Ione and Paul Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. $22-$58. 619-437-6000, lambsplayers.org.