QUILTERS, Northlight Theatre, at the Northwestern University Theatre and Interpretation Center. Lynne Cheney, the former NEH chairman who's been leading the charge against multicultural revisionism in history curricula, would probably hate Quilters. This musical features ten performers dramatizing American pioneer life--and there's not a white male in the bunch. Quilters uses the art of quilting as a metaphor for the lives of the Scotch-Irish settlers who crossed the prairie. Barbara Damashek's folk/country/gospel score, evocatively played on banjo, fiddle, autoharp, and the like, is seamlessly interstitched with the story-theater script (broken up into "blocks," like a quilt) she wrote with Molly Newman. It recounts the joys and sorrows experienced by a matriarch and her six daughters: weddings and funerals, laborious births and secret abortions, log cabins built and destroyed and built again.
Directing a revival of Northlight Theatre's 1985 hit, Susan V. Booth relies on inventive but sometimes stagy rituals and pantomimes and elaborate dance sequences (choreographed by Jan Bartoszek) to convey the phases of her characters' lives. Standouts among the able cast are Deanna Dunagan, as a mother driven mad by hardship, and country balladeer Megon McDonough, as a girl whose memories of a North Carolina girlhood are spun entirely from her poetic imagination. The likable, briskly paced show conveys its stories with charm and occasional poignance; but it lacks the grit, exhilaration, and potent images of Northlight's original production, directed by Kyle Donnelly. The earlier version felt lived in; this just feels playacted.