The title comes from the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s song, Sisters, written for the comic movie, White Christmas. While THE OLD SETTLER is not a comedy, the concept of sisters and the vagaries of their living together is key to understanding what unfolds on the stage.
The script is very strong and the director, Theresa Devine Banford, understood and portrayed the concept very well. While the script primarily deals with the intertwined lives of two sisters, it also succeeds admirably in giving a modern audience an understanding of how someone dealt with the prejudices of the day. I saw shaking heads around the theater as Quilly gives the details of how a woman friend traveling with 4 children was ejected from a “black” railcar because white passengers got the seats (at half price). Those shaking heads became nodding heads later in the Act when Quilly speaks about her pride at the gentlemanly behavior of black men when that same woman and her children are able to board another train and seats become scarce inside the “black” railcar. Another amusing and helpful touch of the 1940s is in the use of the descriptive jargon of the day through which the audience learns about “kitchen mechanics” , “pimp steaks” and of course, the title expression, “old settlers”.
Dawn S Christopher as Elizabeth and Connie Norwood as Quilly both provide nuanced and yet very passionate performances. Ms Christopher’s Elizabeth shows us a woman who has made her way through life doing her duty and yet without the happiness her sister seems to have in abundance. Her solemn demeanor becomes so expected that when she finds some happiness for herself, her smile is wonderful to behold. Ms. Norwood, doing the character of Quilly for the second time at SCTC, easily finds the proper emotional levels and attitudes necessary to convey the younger sister with both expectations and a secret. Their sisterly rapport and affection for each other seems remote at some times but very immediate at others….just like the reality of family life. As was often done to help with rising costs during wartime, Elizabeth has taken in a “roomer” in the person of Husband (named by his Mama) quite capably portrayed by Kim E Brown. There is a genuine gentleness as Elizabeth and Husband start as landlady and tenant and move to friends. While the age range between Elizabeth and Husband could be more obvious, the physical and vocal work done by Mr Brown gives the audience a keen portrayal of a naïve young man struggling with his newly burgeoning adult needs and wants. These performances made it easy to sit back and to ‘believe’ what was happening in Harlem in 1943. Without any doubt, this ensemble is ably supported by Alexandra Mays Ford as Lou Bessie/Charmaine, Husband’s former girlfriend who moved to New York years before with the intent of making it in the city. It is not easy to portray a willful, petulant and unpredictable character and still have the audience remain interested when she walks on stage. Ms Ford does this admirably and more than holds her own with the rest of this dominant cast.
Besides the authentic set and stage dressing (which is something I look forward to at SCTC productions), appropriate music reinforces the mood changes and character growth occurring in this 18 day period of turmoil in the lives of these two sisters. Scene changes were smooth and short helping the audience stay anticipatory of the upcoming action. The various lighting effects were soft and appropriate including, in Act II, a beautiful fade to black and subsequent fade up to morning after a night of dying dreams.
This snippet of life was funny, touching, powerful and resonant. As I was leaving, I had a strong urge to call my sisters just to say “Hi!”. Please make plans to include THE OLD SETTLER at SCTC as a way to spend a pleasant, enlightening and entertaining evening.
THE OLD SETTLER
by John Henry Redwood
Directed by Theresa Devine Banford
October 22 – November 7, 2010
South Camden Theatre Company
Waterfront South Theatre
400 Jasper Street
Camden, NJ 08104