What a difference a decade makes! Let alone two or three. The attraction slowly growing in The Old Settler – between a fresh-faced young man of 29 and a downcast spinster of 55 – pushes a few love taboos, and the tentative couple can’t quite shake their apprehensions about the gulf of years separating them.
Husband (Rickie Peete), a newcomer to town, has taken up board in the apartment of Elizabeth (Kecia A. Campbell) to help her pay the rent, against the warnings of her smart-aleck roomie and sister Quilly (Natalie Tucker). Outside, it’s Harlem, 1943. The sounds and shapes of the city beckon bluesy night encounters. Young women with pert smiles swish the rainbows of their skirts through the spring heat. For Elizabeth, in the autumn of her own life, it’s not just a question of how the neighbors will take to her new beau – it’s whether her new beau will take too much to the neighbors.
Her anguish becomes the core of the story, and she easily wins our sympathy as she attempts to convince the world that stiff bodies still hold beating hearts. Anyone who’s seen a Tennessee Williams play will anticipate the end, and indeed, the tragic heroine fails to conjure the love she requires.
So, what happens to a dream deferred? Sadly, an answer – some feeling of poignant truth – never arrives. African Continuum’s staging, directed by Eric Ruffin, suffers from the same problem the character of Elizabeth does: a shuffling lack of spontaneity and hot-blooded impulse. For a tender story about people struggling to be flexible, the production is oddly arthritic, too preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of lines and blocking to fully live in the moment – to foster a genuine connection and sensuality within its cast.
The sisters occupy small, quiet lives, mostly centering on church service and the occasional funeral, which doesn’t leave much room for the new or intriguing. “I don’t want to have nothing to do with him,” Quilly huffs before the lodger arrives. “I just want him to stay out of our way.” When he does come knocking, he’s not the libidinous ruffian Quilly had feared; he’s a chaste, obliging Southern fellow just up from Carolina country – an innocent who may or may not be ready for the fast life in the big city. His wide-eyed, grinning willingness charms Bess, and the two discover some sweet moments together as they reminisce about growing up in the South.
His eventual offer to her, in the form of a late-night dinner invitation, becomes one of the most alive and engaging emotional build-ups in the show. When he finally asks her to join him toward the end of Act One, we breathe a sigh of relief for a woman who clearly deserves more excitement than a life with just her sister can provide. Quilly knows it, and pushes back against this new swell of puppy love. “He’s just a mama’s boy looking for another mama, and you fit the bill,” she quips.
As abrasive as Quilly can be, Tucker’s nicely comfortable in her skin, and Campbell’s work as Elizabeth is motivated, if a little bluntly at times. Both are capable actors, but as the story becomes more and more about intergenerational love, some basic miscasting becomes impossible to ignore. Tucker and Campbell, both playing women in their fifties battling the onset of late middle age, are too young to be believed in their roles. In the thick of the Harlem Renaissance, Elizabeth is beginning to experience a rebirth of her own, but the theme doesn’t resonate when it’s so difficult to discern any real age difference between her and Husband, or between her and Lou Bessie (Leayne C. Freeman), a coltish, sneering young beauty who, in a past life, carried Husband’s heart in her palm, and who barges repeatedly into the apartment on a quest to sniff him out. The silky specter of Lou Bessie hangs over nearly every moment of Elizabeth’s romance with Husband, but the catty exchanges between the rival ladies – already formulaic in Redwood’s script – grow harder to believe given that Campbell, lovely as she is, can’t sell spinster. Casting isn’t everything, but at times like this, unfortunately, it can pull us out of the moment.
Redwood’s script, first produced in 1998, has a few strong sections that seize on social and political passion to flesh out the drama – an extended anecdote from Quilly, about fighting the Jim Crow infrastructure on a train ride north, succeeds nicely in painting the larger picture – but none of it is stellar writing, especially the beginning, jam-packed with exposition, and the overwritten ending. The group takes an earnest stab at lifting The Old Settler higher than soapy period romance, but it’s an admirable attempt that never fully convinces. A good old sordid family romance can push audiences to examine their own habits of empathy, but when the real heart of it is missing, mama doesn’t always know best.
The Old Settler
Written by John Henry Redwood
Directed by Eric A. Ruffin
Produced by African Continuum Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
The Old Settler plays through May 15, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.