Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's play Gee's Bend tells the heartwarming story of these women, and it has been given a lovely production at the Arden. But, while it has some powerful moments, Wilder's play falls short of the standard that its subject sets for it: It never quite transcends its limitations to become great art.
Gee's Bend tells the tale of Sadie Pettway, a fictional amalgam of several of the real-life quilters. It covers the years from 1939 to 2000, but its strongest scenes come in its middle section, set amid the Civil Rights struggles of 1965. Dr. King's sermons inspire Sadie to improve her life, but her proud husband Macon thinks registering to vote is just asking for trouble. "Ain't nothin' ever that easy," Macon sneersand Sadie finds out just how hard the struggle for freedom is when she marches in the infamous Bloody Sunday march in Selma. But Sadie doesn't let a beating deter her from pushing for what she wants; over her family's objections, she risks her life to drink from a whites-only water fountain.
"What's it taste like?" her sister asks.
"Like a little piece of heaven," says a beaming Sadie.
Sublime, poetic moments like that are, sadly, rare in Gee's Bend. The opening and closing segments feel listlessthey're not set against the background of the civil rights movement, so they depend on family conflict to create drama. And there's not much drama in these framing scenes; we mostly see Sadie getting into spats with her sister and mother, who are drawn so sketchily that they are little more than comic relief. Then there are her fights with her abusive husband, which feel like echoes of more powerful works like The Color Purple.
Furthermore, considering the play is about a quilter, you'd think you'd learn something about quilting. Instead, quilting is an afterthought; there's no discussion of what makes these quilts so distinctive, or how Sadie comes up with the ideas for her quilts. In fact, we don't even learn how quilting is doneexcept for a few brief mentions of a needle and thread. It's as if playwright Wilder is afraid to say too much, so we get a little about quilting, a little about the Civil Rights movement, and a little about spousal abuse. It all adds up to ... not enough.
Fortunately, the Arden's production is so lovingly crafted that it may be easy for some viewers to overlook the flaws and just enjoy following Sadie's struggle to overcome. Director Eleanor Holdridge's ensemble works together with a casual ease, led by Edwina Findley in a spectacular performance as Sadie. Findley transforms from a sassy schoolgirl to a troubled wife to a dignified grandmother all in the course of ninety minutes, and makes it all look easy. The scene where she hobbles home after the march on Selma is just marvelous. It's a courageous portrayal of a courageous woman.
Kes Khemnu plays Sadie's husband with a nice mix of toughness and tenderness, never letting his sometimes brutal character turn into a caricature. Kala Moses Baxter is appealing as Sadie's jaded sister Nella, and Marjorie Johnson scores as Sadie's regal mother Alice and, in the last segment, as Alice's unaffected, practical granddaughter. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's beautiful set design turns the walls, the floors, even the trees into abstract pieces of patchworka fittingly abstract way to depict the town.
Gee's Bend isn't badit's got a great lead performance and some moving moments that will stay with you. Its greatest fault is merely that, with such a rich subject matter, it could have said so much more.
Gee's Bend runs through December 7, 2008 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.