Undercovers Angels






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: MacKillopnancies, James
Date published: April 4, 2012

Undercovers Angels

SU Drama students shine in the song-filled sisterhood salute Quilters

French film director Jean-Luc Godard famously said, "I believe in a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." And so it is with Syracuse University Drama Department's production of Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek's Quilters, a musical revue of themes from women's history as seen in the settling of the American plains.

Quilting, relying as it does on scraps of discards, is an art form for the poor as well as the more affluent. As sewing quilts is seen as women's work, the labor of assembling one becomes a stand-in for the entire female experience, from playing with dolls to experiencing childbirth. The patchwork of quilting is also the narrative template, with pathos here and comedy there, followed by toil and danger.

We see seven players on stage, all moving expressively under the direction of Patdro Harris, who guided the high-spirited, elegant Crowns by Regina Taylor at Syracuse Stage in May 2009. Only one person here has a name, the gray-wigged matriarch Sarah (a well-grounded Erin Nishimura), who stands taller than her six "daughters." We are never sure just how many characters there are, however. Newman's book has drawn from Patricia Cooper and Norman Bradley Allen's oral history of Protestant white women of the frontier, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art (1977). That means if one of the daughters is called by a name, like Mary or Janie, the character's presence is fleeting, and we can never form an attachment to any of them. The "daughters" are not actually Sarah's daughters, and even Sarah is a composite of perhaps a half-dozen matriarchs.

An example of story theater, quite popular in the 1980s, Quilters opened in 1982 in Denver and toured the country before a short run in New York City in September 1984, earning six Tony nominations. SU Drama produced an earlier version in October 1985 that featured one of the department's brightest students, Marie DiFabion, who is now Marie Kemp, a musical theater specialist on the current faculty.

Despite the lack of a character to empathize with or story line to care about, Quilters is still often produced because, well, sisterhood is powerful. There are large audiences who want to see women's herstory, sung and acted out. An appealing kind of Thomas Hart Benton pastoralism prompts costumer Josh Oliver to delight the eye with his creations. And these are seven rich roles for young women players. Most university drama departments are top-heavy with female talent. Competition for those slots was evidently tough, and each of the seven projects a distinct and compelling persona, even when we're not sure of her name.

Early in the action Sarah announces that she would like to assemble a "legacy quilt" that will include patchwork squares or "blocks" to illustrate her dreams, memories, hopes and prayers. Scenic designer Sally SangHee Bae coordinates by covering the stage with paneled boxes or blocks. There is actually very little talk about making quilts, only a smidgen of technical terms, unlike the 1995 romantic film How to Make an American Quilt. Indeed, we do not see terribly impressive quilts on stage, nothing to compare with the wonders on display inside Syracuse Stage's Storch Theater lobby. Nonetheless, that legacy quilt launches the sequence of 26 musical numbers and untold number of vignettes, in which a death scene precedes a birth by 15 minutes.

It takes much effort to know who's singing or saying what as the program's black-and-white mug shots of actresses do not coordinate sharply with the blondes, brunettes and redheads we see on stage, but each "daughter" gets a moment in the spotlight. For Katie Anderson, it's "Never Grow Old," along with Avery Bryce Epstein ("Pieces of Lives"), Heather Siemienas ("Dugout"), Danielle Spinello ("Ev'ry Log in My House"), Eve Steuer ("Dandelion") and Bailey Lauren Thompson ("Quiltin' and Dreamin'"). Most of the musical numbers call for the full company and run a range of themes, most of which have nothing to do with quilting, like "The Rocky Road to Kansas" or "Cornelia, the Corn Cob Doll."

Each of the players, director Harris and music director Brian Cimmit and his excellent nine-person ensemble (including hammered dulcimer, harp and cello) give the music their best. Except for some borrowed works, like the hymn "Are You Washed by the Blood of the Lamb," there just isn't much there there, unlike what Harris had to work with in Crowns. Try to recall a number with friends five minutes after the curtain, and you're more likely to remember the staging or which young beauty performed rather than the lyrics or music.

For the several spoken vignettes director Harris has required each performer to take on the coarse vowels of the plains, so that "Bible" is pronounced "bah-bul." No matter where the materials were collected, it feels as though we're in Kansas, surrounded by Baptists. In director Harris' one miscall, one woman expresses her piety with the sign of the cross.

Several of these episodes deal with feminine issues not related to either quilting or the backbreaking toil of every day. In a section of choral speaking in the first act, young women complain about the onset of "the curse," a "why me?" lament from the first to undergo this change, and yet another from the last to make the passage from girlhood to womanhood.

More controversially, women in the second act bemoan the frequent pregnancies, numbering more than a dozen, the pain, the danger and even more than constant burden of such responsibility. One woman (Bailey Lauren Thompson), fearing for her life, raises the question of how the pregnancy might end, through herbal concoctions, not surgery.

The single most poignant moment comes toward the end of the second act. In a short vignette a woman who knew she could not bear children remembers that she once shared the love of a man who accepted her as she was-only he changed his mind, said he wanted children, and left her. Years later she was the teacher of his children, and bracing herself, said she made the most of the life she had.

After two hours and 30 minutes, matriarch Sarah pronounces, "When you bury me, don't bound me in my best quilt. Pass it along to the grandchildren and later generations." Quilters wants you to feel women's work is not anonymous.

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