STAGE REVIEW : 'Quilters' a Few Threads Shy of a Finished Product

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The idea behind "Quilters," a musical stitched together from a series of vignettes about pioneer women and the quilts they made, has promise. But flaws in both the material and the production now playing at Lamb's Players Theatre make "Quilters" several threads shy of a satisfying whole.

Sally S. Stockton plays the mother who loosely connects these vignettes. She's making her daughters a quilt that tells of her life as one of the women who helped settle the American West in the last century.

Each patch in the quilt calls for a story. When the stories are finished, the quilt is done.

But while the quilt comes together--exquisitely--the musical never does.

Part of the problem with this production is that it tries too hard to please. Director Robert Smyth seems unduly anxious to leave audiences with an uplifted feel-good feeling.

At one point, he has his cast move abruptly from an affecting tragedy about a dying woman who leaves her infant a quilt made of her rags and hospital bedsheets to a big, happy dance number. Transition anyone?

But part of the problem lies in the material itself. The idea behind the piece is wonderful. Life is a lot like a quilt, as is said in the script. The pieces of fabric we get handed to work with in our lives are much like what fate hands us--we have little control over these tricks of birth and upbringing. It is how we put those pieces together that makes the difference.

But art is different from life. In art you can start with nothing. You can choose the pieces for your quilt. The writers, Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, based the show on interviews and a book ("The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art" by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen); they had control over what pieces they included in this musical. And not enough of the pieces they chose are worthwhile. With all the affecting true stories about pioneer women, they go for the gooey Pollyanna stuff four times out of five.

With an inspiration as good as quilting for a musical, it's wasteful to insert cutesy-pie stories like that of the three twittering women at the quilting bee secretly in love with the same guy. Does anyone really care about the outcome of such sitcom-like brouhaha?

Worse, there seems to be this insidious message snaking through it all. Quilting isn't just a metaphor here--it's a panacea. Every pioneer woman quilts! And they all love it! Why a good quilter can get herself a good husband! And every husband in "Quilters" loves his wife! Especially when she's quilting!

Except for the three or four stories (out of about 20) that deal with hardship, one would think that these women had an easy time of it, sitting there relaxed in their chairs, singing and dancing in between quilting bees. There were no bad marriages in Newman's and Damashek's vision of the West. No women old and embittered before their time, no women unable to deal with the harsh demands of a primitive lifestyle, no existential angst--just good hymn-singing women who never let anyone go hungry or cold.

(If you want a darker, more truthful look at pioneer women, check out Beth Henley's "Abundance," now in an excellent production at Blackfriars Theatre. Of course, maybe the problem with the women in "Abundance" is that they didn't make quilts.)

The six-women ensemble at Lamb's is good--but they don't, on the whole, overcome the failings of the material and direction. Stockton invests the mother with dignity, although singing is clearly not her forte. The others play her daughters and a variety of other roles with dexterity.

Among the daughters, newcomer Sarah Zimmerman, a 10th-grader at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, stands out. She brings a shading to her roles that lends a needed depth and shows a surprising sensitivity for one so young. She takes the hardships of pioneer women seriously and doesn't drown her lighter parts in sweetness.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Jeanne Reith provide the vocal strength.

The singing, too, is more memorable than Damashek's songs. Rick Meads supplied the capable musical direction; some of the harmonies are quite lovely. The five-person band, which gives the show a genuine Western twang, is never less than terrific.

Mike Buckley's set is nothing much here--a floor with a star in the center of it--and Nathan Peirson's lighting is not much more. Pamela Turner's choreography is spirited in some parts and floundering in others. The costumes by Reith and Veronica Murphy Smith are so picture-perfect pretty that they contribute to the feeling of how swell everything was out there in the good old West.

Well, the quilts were swell, anyway.

"QUILTERS"

By Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. Music and lyrics, Barbara Damashek. Director, Robert Smyth. Musical direction, Rick Meads. Choreography, Pamela Turner. Costumes, Veronica Murphy Smith and Jeanne Reith. Lighting, Nathan Peirson. Sets, Mike Buckley. Stage manager, Barbara D. Smith. With Sally S. Stockton, Christine Nicholson, Cynthia Peters, Jeanne Reith, Deborah Gilmour Smuth and Sarah Zimmerman. At 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, with Saturday matinees at 2 and Sunday matinees from Oct. 20-Nov. 10. Closes Nov. 16. Tickets are $14-18. At 500 Plaza Blvd., National City, 474-4542. On Family Theatre Days, Oct. 9-30, children ages 4-18 get in free when an adult buys a half-price ticket for $8-$10.50 from the Times Arts Tix booth in Horton Plaza.

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