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Pioneer Suite features tough-as-nails women in the heart of the heartland

Gail Ottmar, Kendall Anne Thompson, and Kelly Matthews

Gail Ottmar, Kendall Anne Thompson, and Kelly Matthews

Composer and writer Keith Hovis does a remarkable thing in Freshwater Theatre's latest piece, Pioneer Suite. He tells the tales of three intriguing women living in 19th-century Minnesota. The collection of stories is at turns heartfelt and heartbreaking, as we watch women struggle against a sexist society that treats any attempt to reach beyond the strict boundaries set for them with a mixture of curiosity and scorn.

Hovis' folksy score adds to the show's fresh feel, as a company of nine performers takes us back a century and a half to a very different Minnesota. A strong cast from top to bottom and tight direction from Ben Layne help to make for a cohesive theatrical whole.

The first piece is a character study of Margaret Housel, who gained infamy in the press for repeated suicide attempts after making what were declared false accusations against her husband. The real story, as is often the case, was much more complex, as her husband was a murderer who prostituted his wife out after she was unable to give him a child. 

The second movement, "Martha's Who's Happy," gives us two views of Martha Angle Dorsett, the first woman admitted to the bar in Minnesota. One version of her is in the minutes before she is accepted. The other is from a decade later, as years of pressure and setbacks have seen Dorsett leave the law behind to become a caterer with her husband. 

Finally, there is "Melancholia." Here we have what seems like an everyday farm wife in the fields near Marshall. It is clear that Mary suffers from depression that has been exacerbated by the failures of the farm (the day we visit starts with a killing frost) and the children she and her husband, George, have buried due to the hard life.

At each turn, the women are put in a place where they need to fight for what is right, and we see a lot of strength. This gives the actors plenty to dig into, which shows up in their terrific singing and acting. That ranges from Kelly Matthews' tough-as-nails Margaret Housel to Gail Ottmar's complex and moving take on Mary Carpenter, as the movement's title tune embraces the mix of anger and misery that lie at the core of her character.

Most intriguing are Kendall Anne Thompson and Gracie Anderson, who play the two versions of Martha Dorsett, sharing the stage, conversations, and songs. There's a real sense of the growth and change within the character between the two actors, but it still feels like they are the same person.

While Hovis' songs are generally strong, there are times when the folksy country tunes blend together. A bit more musical variety would smooth over these hitches and and provide an even stronger show.

IF YOU GO:

Pioneer Suite

Through October 18

Nimbus Theatre

1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

$15-$18

For tickets and more information, call 612-816-8479 or visit online.