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Theater Review (LA): ‘The Old Settler’ by John Henry Redwood

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The late John Henry Redwood’s bittersweet period piece comes to the Pico Playhouse in a nicely nuanced production.

Elizabeth – nicknamed Bess (Ruby Hinds) – and Quilly (Jolie Oliver) are middle-aged African-American sisters sharing an apartment in Harlem in 1943. Quilly, the younger, has come to live with Bess after parting ways with her husband in Brooklyn. Their relationship is strained; despite living together, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much.

Old-Settler_2Bess is awaiting the arrival of their new boarder, the rather bluntly-named Husband (John R. Davidson), who is coming to Manhattan from South Carolina in search of his erstwhile fiancé, Lou Bessie (Crystal Garrett). Quilly is shocked that her sister had rented the room to a man, and a young one at that, but Elizabeth assures her that they had corresponded at length first and the minister at their church vouched for him.

Husband arrives in a flurry and is immediately robbed of his luggage by a man who promised to “watch” it for him. Quilly scoffs at his naiveté, but Elizabeth feels a twinge of pity for the earnest young man. He’s gotten a lead on a restaurant that Lou Bessie may be waitressing in, so he rushes back out in search of her. Shortly after he leaves, the young woman shows up, looking for Husband. Now citified and carrying on an exaggerated air, she insists that her name is now Charmaine, and when she gets back together with Husband, he’ll be known as André.

Of course, when they finally do connect, they go out for a night on the town and Lou Bessie takes full advantage of the inheritance Husband had gotten when his doting mother died. As a matter of fact, he is at sea without his mother, clearly looking for a strong woman in his life to take her place. Distraught at being dumped by Lou Bessie at a downtown nightclub, he returns to the apartment early in the morning and sets his sights on the 50-something Elizabeth. He invites her out for a very late supper and a tentative romance begins to blossom. Of course, the requisite confrontations occur and long-buried secrets are revealed, but Redwood’s dialogue is rich and authentic – and there’s enough humor and emotional heft to keep the piece engaging.

Redwood wrote the strongest parts for the two leading women, and Hinds and Oliver fill the roles well. Hinds is excellent as Bess, the solemn, unmarried sister who is startled to find herself coming back to life in the presence of her young suitor. However, it’s Oliver’s Quilly that is the more complex part. At first smart-mouthed, world-weary and buffoonish, she gets the lion’s share of the laughs in the first act. By the second, though, she’s revealed many dimensions in the character, including a fierce devotion to her sister.

Davidson does the best he can with Husband, a character that’s essentially a naive Mama’s Boy. The scenes between him and Bess work because their motivations are made clear – both are fighting loneliness. And in Act II, when he comes into the apartment wearing the epitome of a swinging ’40s outfit, complete with conked hair (a fashion choice spurred on by the pretentious Lou Bessie), it’s a well-earned laugh. Lou Bessie is a rather one-dimensional, gold-digging type, but Garrett keeps her single-minded selfishness amusing.

Kudos go to director William Stanford Davis for bringing out the laughs and emotions in this simple but well-written piece.

Production values are also nice for this small westside playhouse. The Old Settler plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through October 27. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 980-7712.

About Kurt Gardner

Los Angeles-based writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.