"Quilters" was one of the most popular musicals ever to play in Richmond. Can Theatre IV stitch together another winner? 

Piecing Together a Legend

Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen
8 p.m., Wednesdays - Saturdays, selected matinees
Oct. 29-Dec. 19

When the musical "Quilters" first played Richmond 13 years ago, this city couldn't seem to get enough of it. The production was originally scheduled to run for one month; it eventually ran for more than six, selling out most weekends. Nearly 12,000 people came to see the show. Local actress Margaret Reeder was not among them.

"I just moved to Richmond about a year ago and had never even heard of this show," she says. "Once I got to Richmond, it's just about all I heard about. Everyone was saying, 'Oh, you've got to audition for 'Quilters."" Reeder's voice is a perfect deadpan when she recalls her reaction: "I thought, 'Oh, how exciting. A show about a bunch of women sewing ... this is going to be riveting.'"

Of course, now that Reeder is one of the eight women who will be starring in Theatre IV's third revival of the musical which opens next week, she's changed her tune. "The stories of these women are amazing. And [they] are so well presented. It's a celebration."

The characters in "Quilters" are pioneer women of 150 years ago who braved dangerous trips westward to settle their families in what was then wild and unknown territory. Movies and television shows often highlight the rough-and-ready men who tamed the West, but little is said about the courageous women of the time. While they may not have been shooting it out at the OK Corral, they were raising families — sometimes more than a dozen children — in the face of famine, disease, unfriendly natives and brutal winters.

Reeder says, "After reading these women's stories, I look at my life now, and think, 'maybe my life isn't all that bad.' I don't have to dig my house out or watch my children drop."

For these frontier women, quilting wasn't just about making pretty blankets. They made quilts to help their families survive. "Quilters" shows how women banded together in the face of adversity, working cooperatively to build viable communities. Actress Lynn West, who was in the original production, says the way these women worked together is central to the appeal of "Quilters."

"We are not connected in the way [these] women were," she says. "I think we have a real nostalgia for that. ... I think we are supposed to be in little tribes. I think we yearn for it."

According to Bruce Miller, founding artistic director of Theatre IV, people in Richmond have been yearning for "Quilters" since the 1991 revival of the show. "People call me all the time and say, 'You know that show with the women who made the western journey and made all the quilts? When are you going to bring it back again?'"

The success of the original production was a major boon for Theatre IV, allowing what was then an itinerant company to establish a permanent home on Broad Street. Theatre IV is now the largest professional theater in Virginia. "[Quilters] is one of our signature shows, it defines us in the community," Miller says. "It tells people that Theatre IV is interested in the way that a theatrical examination of history can add resonance to the lives we live today."

In assembling a cast for the new show, director Steve Perigard chose four women who had been in the 1986 production and added four new actresses to the mix. Robyn O'Neill is one of the newcomers and says that the joy in these characters' lives is part of what appeals to her. "The show has some really fun things, some really sweet things. It's not all crying," she says.

And, of course, there is the music, a spirited amalgamation of old-timey, country songs with vocal arrangements designed to make the most of a diversity of female voices. "The harmonies are incredible," O'Neill says.

Although "Quilters" focuses on women, it is a play with universal appeal, says Chris Bass Randolph, who returns to the play as the family matriarch. "There were men who were sort of dragged to [previous productions of] the show with their wives. And they would come up after the show crying, saying that such-and-such scene reminded them of their grandmother or aunt or mother." Theater that can make a grown man cry? Sounds like a lot more than just women sewing.

The Transformative Power of Theater

It is inadequate to say that "Quilters" changed my life. But it did. In fact, the first production in 1986 built the foundation for everything that makes up my life today, including my job as Style's theater critic.

I worked backstage handling props for that first production. Having just moved to Richmond, I volunteered for the job hoping that I would meet people and that it would ease my transition into my new life here. As a young single man, I could hardly contain my glee when I found out that the cast consisted of nine women.

I didn't know what to expect at that first rehearsal, but I certainly didn't expect to fall in love. I was introduced to each actress as she arrived and each was beautiful in her own way. But when the last one entered the rehearsal room, my world shook. She had dark hair, bright green eyes and a smile that took my breath away. From that moment on, I would not have quit that little volunteer job for a million dollars.

Over the course of the production, I was transformed. The cast and crew members became my friends and Richmond started to feel like home. Night after night, when real tears would stream down the faces of audience members, I saw firsthand the transformative power of theater. I became a theater advocate and wanted to stop people on the street to urge them to see shows. I feel lucky that I am now able to do some of that on these pages.

When Theatre IV revived "Quilters" in 1991, I volunteered to run props again. Much of the show was the same: the music, the set, most of the props. Many of the original cast members returned, including that green-eyed actress. There was at least one important difference for me, though. During the intervening years, she had agreed to be my


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