Pioneer women’s hope and grit stitch together ‘Quilters’ at 1st Stage

This intimate production’s heart is with women’s relationships with their bodies, the elements, and one another as friends and sisters.

Full confession: My Sicilian grandmother was a seamstress, but I can barely thread a needle. I still enjoyed the joyful musical Quilters, now gracing 1st Stage—and just extended by popular demand through December 31.

In a way, Quilters, with book by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek and lyrics and music by Barbara Damashek, is the perfect holiday show without mentioning Scrooge, Santa, or elves. Directed by Deidra LaWan Starnes, this story of pioneer women is full of hope, grit, and persistence. The playwrights drew on oral histories from the mid to late 19th century to craft a series of vignettes, or as they call them, blocks, which weave together generations around quilt making.

Patricia Hurley, Ezinne Elele, Kalen Robinson, Maggie Leigh Walker, O’Malley Steuerman, Liz Weber, and Abigail Weinel in ‘Quilters’ at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

“I tremble when I think what that quilt knows about me,” says Sarah (played outstandingly with a tough frontier forthrightness by Liz Weber), as she ponders the meaning of a woman’s life on the prairie and frames this as a memory play. It’s a hard existence. Blizzards. Wildfires. Early deaths. Families too large to feed or adequately support.

The best moments in Quilters are the women struggling with life’s fundamental challenges—pregnancy, birth, and death. The moments that feel inconsequential land heavily on men and courtship. This intimate production’s heart is with women’s relationships with their bodies, with the elements, with one another as friends and sisters, not with the men.

The open, multilevel set by scenic designer Sarah Beth Hall made the staging and production feel as expansive as the prairie. The seven-piece band led by music director Jake Null, performing more than 20 traditional and downhome roots compositions, sounded beautiful onstage, a perfect complement to the lyrics, which ranged from the toe-tapping to the mournful to the barn-raising spiritual.

The choreography by Pauline Lamb added a transcendental layer. A windmill motion to “The Windmill Song” was but one high point among many of the ensemble’s simple but evocative moves. Overall, this production flowed from one vignette to another, from one quilt block to another, from one generation to another across the wide-open prairie.

Kalen Robinson in ‘Quilters’ at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As each ensemble member shared their story, each connected by quilt making, one actor was particularly memorable. In her debut at 1st Stage, Kalen Robinson’s especially heartfelt performance in the haunting rendition of “Little Babes That Sleep All Night,” and in other numbers, stormed the prairie with her voice and acting range. However, kudos must be given to the entire ensemble, which also includes Patricia Hurley, Ezinne Elele, O’Malley Steuerman, Maggie Leigh Walker, and Abigail Weinel, for performing as tightly and neatly as the best hand stitches.

Ultimately, these pioneer women’s hopes and joy come to fruition as a Legacy Quilt (beautifully designed and constructed by Lee Michele Rosenthal) is unfurled at the end, representing all the memories of these women. For a moment, I thought I should try my own hand at my own quilt. First, though, I would need to learn how to sew a single tight, even stitch.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

Quilters plays through December 31, 2023, at 1st Stage, located at 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. Tickets are $55 for general admission and are available for purchase by calling the box office at 703-854-1856, going online, or in person before each performance. Limited numbers of seats are offered at $25 and $35 for each performance. Open seating.

The program for Quilters is online here.

COVID Safety: 1st Stage is now a mask-optional space with select mask-required performances offered for each show (December 16 at 7:30 pm for Quilters). See 1st Stage’s complete COVID Safety Information here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here