Pioneer Suite is a new musical by Keith Hovis that gives us a glimpse into the lives of three women from Minnesotan history. What I love most is that despite taking place in the 19th century, women today can relate to the lives of Margaret Housel, Martha Angle Dorsett and Mary Carpenter. Directed by Ben Layne and presented by Freshwater Theatre, settle in and enjoy this trio of movements filled with blues and gospel music. It’s been over 24 hours since I saw it, and I’m still humming the songs.
In the opening movement, we find Kelly Matthews playing Margaret Housel with her beautifully powerful voice and a mischievous glint in her eye. Margaret is “a woman of suicidal fame,” having attempted suicide nine times, no thanks to a number of factors. Her mother, and her mother’s mother and so on all committed suicide. Her husband acquired a mistress when he found out Margaret was barren, and then he pimped Margaret out to his friends. Sounds like a real winner, huh? It made me think about the expectations placed on women that some people still have today. Women cook, clean, make babies, sew… Things don’t need to be this way anymore, and if a woman can’t do these things, it doesn’t mean she’s useless. In our house, Chris cooks and I clean which is a fair deal to me. And babies? Let’s not even go there. Matthews earns the audience’s sympathy as Margaret obviously seems quite stuck in her position, and her talent easily holds everyone’s attention during this solo movement. Will she leave her husband? Will she finally successfully commit suicide?
Movement 2 leads us to Kendall Anne Thompson and Gracie Anderson playing Martha Angle Dorsett, the first woman accepted to the Minnesota Bar Association. Thompson is 36-year-old Martha looking back on herself as a 26 -year-old (Anderson). Anderson’s Martha is passionate about law and we find her waiting to hear if Judge Austin Young will accept her into the bar. Her husband C.W., played by a charming and sweet-voiced Philip Matthews, also practices law and tirelessly attempts to win arguments against her, most recently on the subject of when they will start a family. The 26-year-old learns that her 36-year-old self no longer practices law and instead runs a catering business with C.W. How did this come to be? Young Martha decides she does not enjoy “this little Dickensian excursion into the future,” but it makes her think about who really makes decisions in one’s life. It’s the judge’s decision to admit her into the bar; someone else decided to accept her into their college. At what point does she get to decide what she does with her life? At what point do we truly decide what direction our lives take?
Movement 3 closes out Pioneer Suite with the story of Mary Carpenter, played by Gail Ottmar. She lives with her husband and son, and her daughter Mamie is coming to visit with her beau. The Carpenters live on a farm and struggle with the ups and downs, most recently an unexpected frost. Mary knows she is not happy, and through recent visits with a doctor is just starting to learn about her “Melancholia.” I can’t imagine living in a time when so little was known about depression. Once I realized I have depression, various times in my life made so much more sense when I thought about the past, and I know I’m lucky to have so many resources available to me now. I connected the most with Mary, as she defaults to telling her family, “I’m fine,” over and over. This is my go-to if I’m feeling down and someone asks how I am. It rolls off the tongue so easily, even though things are not fine. Families deal with these matters in different ways, and because they’re a family of “Small Talk” (they’re Minnesotan, after all) the way they try to deal with her is not necessarily ideal.
Matthews, Thompson, Anderson and Ottmar will all captivate you with their amazing voices and powerful stage presence. The rest of the cast lends support in just the right ways, all with equally wonderful voices and not overshadowing the leading ladies. Hovis leads the 3-person band on-stage, which I think adds just the right amount of character to this story-telling show. These women could be anyone today, and knowing that they’re real stories makes the show all the more touching. Hovis put a lot of research, thought and emotion into Pioneer Suite, and I admire him and the rest of the cast and crew for their portrayal of Margaret, Martha and Mary.
Pioneer Suite runs now through October 18 at Nimbus Theatre. Enjoy the video below then click here to purchase tickets. Also take time to enjoy this interview with Keith Hovis, as well as Ben Layne’s interview on Artfully Engaging.
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