There are moments of great humor and joy, but also sadness in the real-life stories about women featured in NOVA Center for the Performing Arts' production of “Quilters.”

The emotional roller coaster is appropriate for the subject matter — pioneer women overcoming adversity with humor and tenacity. Even though the show is set in the mid-1800s, many of the issues exist today. The production is part of NOVA’s long-running Rankin File series, which showcases stories written by and about women.

One of the featured performers, Jane Van Dyk, said pioneer women were really the first feminists.

"It's not a sweet story about nice old ladies. It's a story that resonates today and reminds us about how strong women have always been, and how they always managed to find their own voices," Van Dyk said.

The only male involved in the production is longtime theater director and costumer Gary Treglown, who is directing with the assistance of Lynn Al. The late Gerry Roe, who produced "The Quilters" 25 years ago at Rocky Mountain College, was originally set to direct but he passed away last September. “The Quilters” opens Feb. 9 and runs through Feb. 18.

JACI WEBB/Gazette staff
"Quilters" was last performed in Billings 25 years ago at Rocky Mountain College. This year's production is directed by Gary Treglown, who called the work brilliant.  “I guarantee no one will leave here with a dry eye," he said. "It definitely piqued my sensitivity at times." 

Although he came to the project late, Treglown said he's awed by the authenticity of the script and the passion of the actors.

“It’s brilliant,” Treglown said. “I guarantee no one will leave here with a dry eye. It definitely piqued my sensitivity at times."

Important stories to tell

NOVA managing director Dodie Rife said the stories about women living in a male-dominated world and dealing with life’s struggles still ring true today.

“It’s important to tell these stories,” she said. “The show hits all those subjects that women dealt with then and now, the pressures of being a woman. Certain kinds of pressures create diamonds.”

The quilt is used a symbol in the musical, weaving the stories together using bits from the women's lives.

“All the time they are quilting. This is the societal glue that holds them together,” Treglown said.

The cast includes seven local women playing Sarah and her six daughters. They range in age from West High School student Mikayla Bullman to retirees, including Van Dyk. Other performers include Carolyn Clark, Kristy Dallas, Susan McCaughey, Kim Shroyer and Janie Sutton.

The women all act out different characters when they tell their stories. One minute, they may be portraying a husband and in another, they may act out a birthing scene.

JACI WEBB/Gazette staff
Mikayla Bullman, Jane VanDyk, Carolyn Clark, Kristy Dallas, Susan McCaughey, Kim Shroyer and Janie Sutton are performers in "Quilters" at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. The show, part of the center's Rankin File series, opens Feb. 9.

"Jane tells a story about losing a husband in a railroad accident," Treglown said. "That happened to my grandfather in North Dakota."

Burying a child

During rehearsal Sunday night, Bullman clutched blue silk fabric to her chest, portraying a young girl telling about the neighbor woman losing her baby and how the special fabric is sewn into a quilt for the infant's casket. The stories reflect real-life experiences about girlhood, marriage, spinsterhood, twisters, fires, illness and death.

Kathy McLain is music director with Alicia Thomason on violin and Dian Hudak on guitar. Debra Gloor is stage manager.

Twenty-one songs, some based on hymns, are featured in the production, and many of the harmonies are so complex, each of the seven performers sings a different part.

Sutton, who performs as one of the daughters in the show, said the music is challenging, even for experienced performers like Sutton, who has been in several locally produced operas and musicals. All seven performers are on stage throughout the two-act musical.

“It’s definitely more trying than shows where you go backstage between scenes. You have to stay focused throughout the show,” Sutton said.

Since the show will be performed in NOVA’s Black Box theatre, audience members in the front row will be an arm’s length from the cast. 

“That is the hope — that you feel like you’re there with the cast,” Rife said.