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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Luna Stage Returns with The Old Settler

Also see Bob's review of An Iliad

After an absence of 18 months, the venerable Luna Stage Company has reappeared in top form to its new theatre in West Orange with a revival of John Henry Redwood's popular comedy-drama The Old Settler.

Redwood takes us back to 1943 Harlem and the comfortable, well kept apartment of genteel 55-year-old spinster ("old settler" in the parlance of the neighborhood) Elizabeth Borny. Her difficult, manipulative, younger sister Quilly is living with her. Quilly recently moved in with her after the break-up of her marriage. The sisters have a complicated, sometimes hurtful, relationship, but there is an underlying sisterly affection and need that binds them together.

The churchgoing sisters are both underemployed domestics. In order to help pay her expenses, Elizabeth has agreed to take a boarder, name of Husband Witherspoon. Recently arrived from rural North Carolina, Husband is a simple, gentlemanly 29-year-old "farm boy." After the death of his beloved mother, Husband sold her house, enabling him to come north to Harlem where he is trying to find his childhood girlfriend, Lou Bessie, who fled their little town for New York when she was sixteen. Lou Bessie isn't Lou Bessie anymore and not only because she has changed her name to Charmaine. A loose-living, sexy floozy whose nights are spent partying at the Savoy Ballroom, her main interest in Husband is the money which he has from selling the house.

Reminiscing about their memories of the rural South, Elizabeth and Husband are drawn to one another despite the gap in their ages. Perhaps Elizabeth should know better, but she joyfully allows herself to fall under the thrall of Husband whose attentions bring her a happiness which she had given up on ever finding.

The dialogue of the late John Henry Redwood is alive with witty and evocative expressions and phrases. Period songs sung by the likes of Billie Holiday are effectively employed.

Every performance is accurate, detailed and evocative. The radiant Suzzanne Douglas is a heartwarming and heartbreaking, perfectly cast Elizabeth. Douglas seems to peel back the years as she basks in the joy of her newfound suitor. Douglas effortlessly embodies a woman who is an "old, 'old settler'" with the physical and inner beauty to turn the head of a much younger man. Ami Brabson captures all the colors of the deeply conflicted and maladjusted Quilly while expertly mining the role's rich and extensive humor. Her performance spotlights the fact that the relationship between Elizabeth and Quilly is as central to The Old Settler as is the romance of Elizabeth and Brother.

Jamahl Marsh surely has just gotten off the train from North Carolina. Marsh's Husband could not be sweeter, or more appealingly sincere and hopelessly clueless. And it would not surprise me to learn that the delightfully rapacious Nikkole Salter (Lou Bessie) had just stepped out of a freshly minted silver screen print of 1943's Stormy Weather.

Set Designer Robert Monaco's rich period design with multiple, lived-in rooms (living room, kitchen, hallway with a furnished recess leading to the bedroom, and a hall outside the door to the apartment with a accurately placed, bur unseen window) realistically placed on a small stage is a marvel. Notice the manner in which Suzzanne Douglas uses the oversized rocking chair when events cause her to shrink up into herself. Jill Nagle's expert lighting design is smartly employed to depict the passage of time. The crucial period costumes of Debra Bergsma Otte could revive '40s fashion. When clueless Husband dons a suit fit for a gangster, it is not actually a zoot suit, but, if you are of a certain age, you will be delightfully reminded of heavyweight champ Joe Louis performing "What the Well Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear" in the film version of Irving Berlin's This is the Army.

Director Susan Kerner has elicited this superlative work and blended it into a seamless, perfectly paced whole. Although the theatre is designed to seat 99, I would estimate that it seats about 79 in the conformation that is employed for this production. With seats steeply banked on two sides of the stage, none more than a handful of feet from the stage, audience members cannot help but feel that they are sitting in Elizabeth's living room.

The Old Settler was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre where it had its world premiere in 1997. It was produced in New York by Primary Stages, filmed by PBS Hollywood, and has been widely performed in regional theatres throughout the country as well as overseas. Previously, I had seen Settler in its initial production at the McCarter. Still, abetted by the hyper intimacy of Luna Stage's theatre space, it is hard to imagine a better production of this lovely play than the one it is now receiving.

Both Luna Stage and The Old Settler are both back and better than ever.

The Old Settler continues performances (Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through November 14, 2010, at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange 07052. Box Office: 973-395-5551; online: www.lunastage.org

The Old Settler by John Henry Redwood; directed by Susan Kerner

Cast:
Quilly McGrath.........................Ami Brabson
Elizabeth Borny...............Suzzanne Douglas
Husband Witherspoon............Jamahl Marsh
Lou Bessie Preston................Nikkole Salter


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- Bob Rendell



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