SEQUIM — From birth to death and everything in between, “Quilters” touches on everyday things that happened to a woman while traversing the American frontier — with parallels to today — said actress Susan Cates.
The latest production by Olympic Theatre Arts brings seven women together for a three-week run, telling tales of braving tough terrain and raising families with song and dance layered in.
“It’s basically telling the story and experience of pioneer women as a whole,” actress Charisa Silliman said. “We each play pioneer women as a whole, but with their triumphs and tragedies.”
“It’s like watching a documentary on pioneer people with music,” she said.
Directed by Richard Stephens, “Quilters” opens tonight and is performed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 8, with a pay-what-you-will show at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the theater at 414 N. Sequim Ave.
The Sunday matinees are talk-back shows offering a question-and-answer period with the cast and crew
Tickets are $24, $22 for OTA members and $15 for students with ID. Advance tickets are available online at www.olympictheatrearts.org or by calling 360-683-7326.
“Quilters,” a musical play by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, brings together interrelated stories on the trail of the good — childhood and marriage — along with the bad — fire and illness.
“It’s a roller coaster ride,” said actress SaraJane Benjamin. “It goes from a low to a turnaround of singing about toys and children. Within 30 seconds, we’re frozen to death to singing children.”
Cates said it’s challenging but a good skill to develop as an actor.
“It’s like an improv mindset,” Benjamin said.
“You engage with the audience and lift them back up. Richard has helped us key into that and help with transitions.”
Stephens agrees that it puts people “through an emotional ringer.”
“These women have guts and determination,” he said.
“There’s no general store, no Starbucks. They built everything with their own two hands and did it while bringing out 16 children, with no modern medicine or electricity or Amazon Prime, or any of the things we take for granted every day.”
Following a recent snowfall, actress Sarah Shea said she was thinking about the adversity women faced on the frontier.
“I was keeping my heat down because it can be expensive, and I kept thinking of these characters in these little dugouts, but making do,” she said.
“It kept a positive mindset in me, ‘Oh Sarah quit your complaining.’ It helps you keep things in perspective.”
Fellow actress Gabi Simonson agreed, saying people “can handle more than we think we can.”
“The mind gives up before the body does and we never push ourselves,” she said.
Cast and crew agree the show pays homage to our mothers and grandmothers from yesteryear.
“It’s a nod to the women who settled this area and braved the wilderness and made a life out of here,” Benjamin said.
Stephens feels it shows women handing off the torch to the next generation and saying, “You can do it.”
“It’s about the resiliency of women, and that’s a story to tell,” he said.
Cates said in the past the phrase “women’s work” and being a homemaker was not valued in society, but “Quilters” reinforces how much effort went into keeping a home and raising a family and children.
“It’s critically important,” she said.
A new mom, Shea said she has a lot more respect for women birthing babies in the days without epidurals and bath tubs with bubble bath.
For Silliman, the show serves as a reminder that “women’s bodies have not been their own.”
“They were property to be bred with and worked, and (had) no say over what they could and couldn’t do with their bodies,” she said. “It’s sobering.”
Silliman added that it’s important for men to see the show to understand what women went through, and continue to go through, in life.
“Women have been integral in forming the country,” Silliman said. “We did all the footwork. We did everything necessary to keep people alive.”
Stephens said it’s a funny dichotomy when people ask, “Why would a guy want to see a show with seven women? But no one says, ‘Why would a guy want to see a show with seven men?’ ”
“The reality is when people see this or read the play, they say they could never do what these women did,” he said.
As one of the few men involved in the production, Stephens said he’s loved “Quilters” for years and asked for an opportunity to direct only if no woman wanted to direct.
“It’s such a wonderful show about the strength of women and the power and fortitude of women,” he said. “It is a story that is very much about the early days of Sequim. This is our story.”
He said westerns typically focus on men and guns.
“But the reality is it was women working very hard in adverse conditions,” Stephens said. “They dug irrigation ditches and planted farms and ran schools. That’s how the west was contained.”
For more information about Olympic Theatre Arts and “Quilters,” visit www.olympictheatrearts.org, or call 360-683-7326.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].