THE HUMBLE, homespun musical "Quilters" was seemingly made for small theaters like the Castle Arts Center in Hyattsville.
The unconventional show, which debuted at the Kennedy Center last year before being nuked on Broadway, is an impressionistic patchwork of the sorrows, joys and struggles of America's unsung heroines, the pioneer women who sewed their own colorful stories into the quilts they left behind.
The Castle crew pulls the show off beautifully in the first act, with some gorgeous singing and honest acting. But director Anton-Sadlak Jaworski and his mixed bag of amateur and professional performers drop more than a few stitches, and "Quilters" unravels in the second act.
Co-authors Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek frame the play with an elderly woman bequeathing her "legacy quilt" to her daughters, and her narration gives rise to a host of remarkable survival stories as an enormous quilt is assembled square by square, with such traditional quilt patterns as "Log Cabin" and "Tree of Life."
"Quilters" is admirable not only for its simple stage magic but for its scope of vision. While there are sweet and plentiful pleasures, "Quilters" avoids prairie platitudes, depicting also the very grim side of frontier life. The second act contains the heavier stuff, dealing with adulthood, childbirth and death; still, it misses the first act's nimble touch and comes off as ponderous and fatiguing.
Working within a modest budget, musical director Roy Barber works wonders, stripping the original score's folk orchestra to one pianist (himself) and Mary Marxer, who plays hammer dulcimer, guitar, mandolin and a variety of percussion instruments. The two musicians delicately embroider Damashek's story-songs, patterned after folk tunes and spirituals.
The seven somewhat hesitant Castle actresses are strongest in the singing department, weaving exultant choral harmonies around the songs, and all are energetic and believable in their bits. Bari Biern gives a particularly vivacious and funny spin to her several roles.
The Castle stage itself, a short drive from the Capitol, is an attractive addition to the area's theater community. The lobby features an exhibit of lovely quilts by the Prince George's County Historical Quilt Society, members of which will be demonstrating quilt-making each night of the run.
QUILTERS -- At the Castle Arts Center (5340 Baltimore Ave, Hyattsville) through May 25.