Of quilting and strong pioneer women

How straightforward can a play's title get? ''Quilters,'' the current production at the Mark Taper Forum, is so straightforward that it is actually what it says it is: a play about quilting.

But don't let that quality of prairie honesty fool you into believing that is all it is about. Quilting is used as a metaphor for the determination and strength of pioneer women.

''Quilters'' is about their adaptability and flexibility, their skill and diversity, their passion and compassion. It is about birthing and aging, sex and marriage, life and death. In its simple songs and complex choreography, it pieces and stitches a whole series of narrative quilt blocks - and sews them together in a grand climax that gloriously celebrates the joys and the sorrows of struggling for survival.

A cast of seven women, featuring Betty Garrett as the allegorical matriarch, sings and chants and moves about the stage nimble-footedly, all the time evoking a kind of down-home, salt-of-the-earth philosophy that bares the roots of current-day feminism. The play is based, in part, upon the book ''The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art,'' by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen.

''Quilters,'' with music by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, was directed by Ms. Damashek to sustain a sense of joyous exhilaration. Its simple, symbolic set was designed by Ursula Belden, with homespun costumes by Marianna Elliott and magic lighting by Allen Lee Hughes. The quilts were constructed by Barbara Benn and evoke constant gasps of admiration from the audience. At the Mark Taper there is also a display of breathtaking quilts in the upstairs lobby.

''Quilters,'' presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum of the Los Angeles County Music Center, was done originally at the Denver Theater Company and represents the growing pattern of regional theaters exporting their most innovative works to other resident groups. It is scheduled to run through Feb. 5 at the Mark Taper; after that there is some talk of trying to move it to an Off Broadway theater in New York.

Whether or not it is ''sophisticated'' enough for New York audiences may be of concern to some producers. But it should not be forgotten there were many who doubted the potential for New York success of the classic musical ''Oklahoma!'' Certainly, this play is at least prime material for PBS or cable presentation.

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