Still, for all of the movement and drama, "Patchwork" hits it stride only when the focus narrows to the contentious relationship between Laura (Erin Thomas) and her Walnut Grove nemesis, Nellie Olsen (Emma Orelove). Orelove portrays the insolence of the town's rich girl with snooty precision, making her the perfect foil for Thomas' righteous vengefulness. Everyone loves a good comeuppance, and Miller's script orchestrates a nice one for Nellie, pointed but not too nasty.
"Patchwork" frames its various episodes with the occasion of Laura packing up her quilts before leaving town for her first teaching job. The quilted designs spur the spinning of several family tales. This device allows for continuity but also results in a somewhat fractured narrative, with many key aspects of the Ingalls family history left along the side of the road. Laura's blind sister, Mary (Robin Harris), sings eloquently about how she imagines the world through vivid pictures that hang in her memory, but we are never told how she lost her eyesight.
Fortunately, Director Susan Sanford has assembled a cast of talented, if not always age-appropriate, players who support the spotty text well. Orelove's performance as Nellie is particularly impressive when contrasted with the shiny innocence she exudes as Laura's little sister Carrie during most of the play. Another standout performance is delivered by Gordon Bass as Pa Ingalls. Bass lends Laura's dad a hardy, exuberant presence with the kind of adventurous spirit that probably did spur early Americans to set out across the perilous prairie.
The original songs that Musical Director Julie Fulcher has orchestrated for the show are nicely arranged with peppy instrumentation. Joel Sherry's inventive set is dominated by a simple, sturdy frame house that is surprisingly easy to reconfigure to represent the many different places Laura and her family lived.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is a compelling character, and "Patchwork" is an interesting exploration of her early years. But in stitching this show together, Miller has borrowed from many sources, from the perennial stage favorite "Quilters" to the fairy tale "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Though not necessarily a bad thing, it does lend an air of déj… vu to the production. "Patchwork" is a familiar journey, but then again, some of the most enjoyable trips are along well-traveled paths. S
"Patchwork: A Pioneer Musical Based on the Little House Quilts of Laura Ingalls Wilder" runs at Barksdale Theatre, at The Shops at Willow Lawn, through March 13. Tickets are $10-$11. Call 344-8040 or go to www.theatreiv.org.