Quilting is more than the simple act of sewing a quilt. In American culture and lore for some centuries before modernism and industrial production made the practice quaint, quilting provided a social fabric that held communities and generations of women together.
“Quilters,” which opened Friday at Cottage Theatre, explores the bonds of quilting in a play — a play that’s not quite a musical, but close — that enjoyed a very brief Broadway run in 1984. Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek wrote the book, and Damashek did the lyrics and music.
Whether viewed as a play or a musical, “Quilters” has challenges. It offers no real plot and hardly any characters to identify with. The music is delightful but unvarying, a mix of Americana folk and religious music. (If you love “Simple Gifts,” you’re in good shape.) There are no great anthems to catch your heart, no ballads to make a run at top 40 radio.
That said, the Cottage Theatre production of the play is fascinating in a contemplative way. Based on a simple, thin conceit — a woman’s eight daughters come home at the end of her life to help her finish a quilt — the play draws its occasional power from a succession of moving stories, so near to America’s heart, of pioneer women’s lives. Even in 2015, it can be stunning to be reminded of what it must have been like to give birth, alone, in a dugout hut on the wind-swept prairie, or to have your husband’s body brought home by co-workers in a basket after a railroad accident.
Throughout, of course, the women cope with their lives and loves and tragedies by quilting, leading up to a moving finale when the family quilt is at last complete.
Eliza Roaring Spring directs and, at the last moment, stepped in herself to play the key role of Sarah. The ensemble cast of her daughters, who act out the roles here of Every Woman in the many vignettes, includes Nancy Anderson, Stefhani Anderson, Siv Serene Barnum, Rosalia D’Amato, Amber Brower, Dania Hovet, Annie Read Pusey amd Madeleine Sisson.
The simple, effective set is by Roaring Springs and Omar Nelson.
Live music is provided by an onstage trio of Catricia Mayhue, who also worked as music director; Avery Pratt; and Delia House Lopez.
“Quilters” runs through Aug. 30. More info at CottageTheatre.org.