A patchwork play of the joys and struggles of pioneer women

''Quilters'' is a joyous and poignant new musical that deals with the fabric of pioneer women's lives: pieces of courage, hope, humor, grit, and gaiety stitched together on stage.

Bright quilts are the set, the props, and the symbols of this new play by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek that gives a vivid glimpse of living with the hardships of 19th-century prairie life.

''It's a very narrative piece, a woman's story, about our history, but the content is really universal,'' says Rosemary McNamara, one of the actresses in ''Quilters,'' as she laces up a pair of black leather high-top shoes in her Kennedy Center dressing room.

''We see men in suits and ties crying in the audience,'' says another actress , Evalyn Baron. ''We all come from a prairie, all of our families crossed a prairie somewhere. It could have been in Eastern Europe, it could have been in Ireland, it could have been in Russia. All of our families have crossed prairies. This show is about crossing the prairies in your life.''

''Quilters'' goes from Kennedy Center in Washington to a Broadway opening Sept. 26, and the question is whether that ultrasophisticated city is quilt country. ''New York needs it,'' Ms. Baron says. ''Someone like the Madison Avenue ad executive has the biggest prairie of all to cross, if you catch my drift. ... If there are any prairies to fertilize with our spirit, they're in New York. But we love New York. I can't wait to give this show as a gift to my friends there.''

As they talk, both actresses are busy dabbing on makeup and piling on clothes over their 19th-century pantaloons and undershirts: layers of calico petticoats, shirts, and aprons in muted colors that turn them into strolling quilts. On stage, they drop off layers as needed for each new character they play.

The real-life characters they play provide glimpses of some of our founding mothers: the pioneer girl huddled under quilts in a prairie dugout, surviving the 40-degrees-below-zero cold that wiped out her family; the bride who sings of her husband's first sight of her, quilting under a shade tree; the mother who pieced 25 years of her life into a ''legacy quilt'' for her daughters.

''Quilters'' is based on taped interviews by Ms. Newman and the oral histories of pioneer women in ''The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art,'' by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley.

Three years ago actress Molly Newman auditioned for the Denver Theater Company (where this musical began) using an excerpt from that book so successfully that she was encouraged to expand the concept into a play. She and co-writer, composer, and director Barbara Damashek turned out a play that became not only a hit in Denver but a prizewinner at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

The actresses in the cast have immersed themselves in the lives of the quilters they play, researching the subject for fresh insights.

''In one of the books,'' says Rosemary McNamara, ''a woman says she made quilts as fast as she could to keep her family from freezing, and she made them as beautiful as she could to keep her heart from breaking.''

The radiant unity of their ensemble performance may spring partly from a period of time they share daily before the curtain goes up. They call it ''The Circle,'' a quiet patch of time when they all gather with some of the musicians to sit in a ring, read or share inspiring thoughts, and then spend several minutes in silent meditation or prayer. Although they have earlier done vocal exercises, they often sing a hymn or spiritual, hands joined.

Lenka Peterson, who plays the mother figure in ''Quilters,'' generally leads the circle. ''They let me do that I guess because it's a time for us to draw together and put away the world that isn't useful,'' says Ms. Peterson, ''and to try to bring our best resources to serve the show, and to get into character. And since mine is the mother figure, I use the circle with them. We begin to establish the relationships. I feel that we are colleagues, but once we get into the circle we begin to form our relationships as mother and daughters.''

Even at intermission, there is a reminder that women today go on piecing their lives together: a display of vibrant contemporary quilts in the entrance hall of the Terrace Theater. Outside in the lobby, there's an informal quilting bee as members of a group from Columbia, Md., stitch away at a ''Colonial Lady'' quilt.

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