By Pat Launer
Piecing and snipping, stitching and stuffing. That’s what it takes to create a quilt – and tell a life story, a dictum that’s repeated throughout the musical “Quilters,” making its return to Lamb’s Players Theatre for the third time.
It’s all about prairie women, and how they documented – and escaped from – the hardships, joys and burdens of their hardscrabble existence, in quilts. One mother (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) and her five daughters (Megan Carmitchel, Jessica Couto, Cynthia Gerber, Caitie Grady and Lucia Vecchio) come to represent all the steadfast, indomitable gals who made it through those rough winters and tough times in the American wilderness, carving out a life and a country.
All the stages of a woman’s life are described. They had too many babies, for one thing – sometimes up to 14 or 15. There’s a surprising segment on the recipes recommended to short-circuit those annual occurrences – and the male doctors who refused to help. It was always left to the women to support and assist each other.
In this 1982 show by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, the message is clear, the conceit clever, the songs pleasant, if not memorable. But a little goes a long way; an intermissionless 90 minutes would feel just about right, and less repetitive.
Still, there are many delights in the Lamb’s production, most notably, the extraordinary harmonies and angelic a capella singing (outstanding music direction by G. Scott Lacy). Robert Smyth directs with a light, deft touch. The choreography (originally created for Lamb’s by Pamela Turner, with new additions by Deborah Gilmour Smyth) is congenial and high-spirited. The insistent buoyancy is offset by stories of loss and loneliness, but the overall tenor remains perky.
Each performer gets her chance to shine, in solos and monologues. And Gilmour-Smyth gets to show off her remarkable vocal range; she hits the lowest and highest notes of the evening. The band is superb; a special shoutout to fiddler Emilie McDonald and multi-instrumentalists Rik Ogden and Jim Mooney. The attractive costumes (Jeanne Barnes Reith) lean heavily toward sensible calico. The set (Mike Buckley) is all weathered wood – platforms and ladders and quilt racks. And at the end, a giant quilt is hoisted, embodying all the patterns and stories of these lives.
From movies, it would seem that the West was won by swaggerin’, gun-totin’, whiskey-swiggin’ men. But the women kept the family wheels greased. Their voices are significant, too, and should certainly be heard.
“Quilters” plays through April 27, at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado, 1142 Orange Ave.
Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m.
Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Tickets ($2 -$62) are available at 619-437-6000 or www.lambsplayers.org.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.