Life tales flawlessly patched together

September 11, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Spotlighters production of "The Story Quilt" is like sitting in your grandmother's parlor and listening as she and her friends spin wonderful tales about the past.

Even Rick Noble's set design -- with its upholstered armchairs and shelves of knickknacks -- has the feel of a comfy sitting room. All that's missing is a hearth with a fire and a plate of grandma's freshly baked cookies.

The play began three years ago in a class called "Writing Memory Pictures," taught by Betty Corwell Walter at the Renaissance Institute, the senior citizens' program at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Last year, Walter and Noble edited the memoirs into theatrical form and presented them for a weekend run at Theatre Hopkins and on Baltimore County's educational cable channel (36). Noble edited them again to create the current production.

Memoirs have become the "in" thing lately, but this anthology is so artfully compiled and performed that it makes even the old and familiar seem fresh and new. At Spotlighters, under Todd Pearthree's direction, five highly congenial actors, script in hand, regale us with the stories written in Walter's class.

Among the more charming parts of the evening are recollections of childhood -- everything from a small child's memory of sucking on a forbidden penny (gleefully delivered by Bruce Godfrey) to Robert Riggs' gentle depiction of a little boy's broken heart when his favorite playmate moves away.

One particularly spirited story is that of a Catholic schoolgirl who earned the reputation of being a troublemaker and suffered the indignity of having her beloved braids cut off in class by her teacher. All five actors -- Godfrey, Anne Helms Irons, Carol Mason, Nona Porter and Riggs -- take part in this account, which concludes with Mason defiantly mimicking her teacher's warning against "taking up with bad companions who could lead you on the road to hell."

The braid story has a neat counterpart in the second act, when Porter delightfully relates the proud rite of passage of sacrificing her braids at Hutzler's when she was old enough for her first permanent wave.

On a much more serious note, Mason seems genuinely to re-live the bleak torment of a Jewish woman whose mother survived pogroms in Eastern Europe only to end up addicted to prescription drugs in the United States.

And Irons exults in the civil rights account of a woman who participated in Baltimore's first interracial tennis match at Druid Hill Park in 1948, then met her future husband at the celebratory party after the tennis players and their supporters were released on bail.

"The Story Quilt" ("Memory Pictures," the name of the class, might have been a better title) is peppered with references to bygone Baltimore landmarks as well as more general remembrances of things past. After intermission, when the actors launched into memories of World War II -- from rationing to FDR's fireside chats -- members of the opening-night audience vTC nodded, voiced their recognition and even joined in on a chorus of the 1944 hit song "Mairzy Doats."

Part poetry, part prose and mostly oral history, "The Story Quilt" is a show that older audiences can identify with and younger audiences can learn from. Most of all, it warmly reinforces the common denominator of life experiences, however individual the lens through which they are seen. As the closing lines put it: "It came to me one day that there is only one story and it is a story of growing up, loving, perhaps marrying and begetting children, working and playing in the sunlight and then growing old in peace and love."

'The Story Quilt'

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 28

Tickets: $10

Call: 410-752-1225

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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