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Stitches and Secrets 

Westcliffe theater pieces together the stories of pioneer women

Someday soon there will be a documentable phenomenon known as "Colorado Theater," referring to an original movement in the theater world that was born and bred in the Rocky Mountain West. When looking for an early landmark production setting off the development of a uniquely western perspective on the stage, researchers will not need to look much further than Quilters, a play developed at the Denver Center Theatre Company for production in 1982 and onstage now at the Jones Theater in Westcliffe in a faithful and flattering interpretation.

The play is best described as "folk theater," a collection of characters and stories woven into a seamless celebration of prairie life and frontier women in scenes, monologues, song and dance. Playwrights Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek use the common thread of quilts and quilting to explore the lives of women settling on the western frontier in the middle of the 19th century. Drawing on historical texts about American quilts in addition to homesteader letters, folk poetry anthologies, women's diaries, and other accounts of the era, the playwrights develop nine characters, changing names, ages, and gender with the presentation of each new block of a quilt, but maintaining a consistent narrative that brings to life the wonder and the torment of another time.

Director Lynne Ormandy has done a remarkable job of presenting this play in all its rough-worn glory, drawing on a spirited cast from the small mountain community. The play itself is a durable creation, genetically engineered to endure and flourish with rough edges favored over polish and glitz. Among the standouts are Phyllis Bishop, who anchors the performances with a powerful portrayal that finds her always on the verge of unleashing her resolutely suppressed emotions as the family matriarch. Monica Backsen displays a dynamic range in a variety of roles, and Rachel Riggs, the youngest cast member at age 10, offers the evening's most animated performance.

Of the nine cast members, five are aged 16 or younger. The unusual casting works well for a play with such a variety of roles and ages to play, and Ormandy instills a wonderful uniformity of spirit and affect on stage, leading the cast to successfully deliver the play to its appreciative audiences.

Karen McBride's musical direction meets the challenges of a spare score that endures as a rich tapestry of delicate and haunting songs mixed in with a taste of joyous dances and simpler folk melodies. The cast offers stirring interpretations of songs such as "Land Where We'll Never Grow Old," de-emphasizing their own vocal abilities in favor of a consistent focus on the words and emotions they breathe life to.

Cast member and choreographer Yarrow Spitzfadden also deserves attention for working with Ormandy in making elegant expression out of the westward movement of a covered wagon, the turning of a windmill, a delightful underwater river baptism, and various traditional folk dances.

You couldn't ask for a better setting than Westcliffe to stage this production. The beautiful 90-minute drive through the Wet Mountains to the foot of the Sangre de Cristos serves as both prologue and epilogue to the performance. The nine-member ensemble is as solid and triumphant as the remarkable characters they portray, evoking both the romantic legends of pioneer heroines and the gritty realism of frontier life where "it's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here."

-- owen@csindy.com


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