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'Old Settler' explores unlikely love and sisterhood
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Staff

Beyond the fussing and fighting, abiding love exists between sisters Elizabeth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, left) and Quilly (Wandachristine) in John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler," running through March 28 at Writers' Theatre.

 

Country boy Husband Witherspoon (Kelvin Roston Jr.) courts the much older Elizabeth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), the titular "Old Settler" in John Henry Redwood's drama, directed by Ron OJ Parson in his Writers' Theatre debut.

 

The sassy Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers, center) challenges the gentle Elizabeth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, left) for Husband (Kelvin Roston Jr.) while Elizabeth's sister Quilly (Wandachristine) looks on in Writers' Theatre's "The Old Settler."

 

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Published: 2/19/2010 12:01 AM

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"The Old Settler"

★★★

Location: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through March 28; also 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 24; no 7:30 p.m. performance March 24, no 6 p.m. performance Feb. 28

Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $40-$65

Parking: Free parking adjacent to the theater

Rating: For teens and older

John Henry Redwood's bittersweet drama "The Old Settler" breaks no new ground. But this wistful play about an unlikely romance and enduring sisterly bonds treads its familiar path with such compassion one can forgive it its predictability.

The story of an aging spinster who embarks upon a late-in-life romance with a much younger man, "The Old Settler" isn't nearly as filling or as provocative as Terrance Alvin McCraney's blistering "The Brothers Size," another examination of the sibling bond currently running in repertory at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Still "The Old Settler," makes for enjoyable theater on the strength of its quiet humor and engaging characters winningly portrayed by the acting quartet in director Ron OJ Parson's affectionate, forthright production for Writers' Theatre.

The action unfolds in 1943 in a Harlem apartment (a cozy, lived-in set designed by Jack Magaw, warmly lit by Heather Gilbert). The apartment belongs to Elizabeth Borny (a nurturing, but emotionally bruised Cheryl Lynn Bruce), the titular old settler, which is to say an unmarried woman in her 50s with no prospect of getting married.

Elizabeth shares her home with her sister, the recently divorced and frequently broke Quilly McGrath (a wary, frank Wandachristine). To make ends meet, Elizabeth has also taken in a male boarder, the purposefully named Husband Witherspoon, a fresh-scrubbed, wide-eyed country boy (the affable, earnest Kelvin Roston Jr. whose aw-shucks demeanor feels absolutely genuine).

So country "he still has chicken doody between his toes," Husband has come to New York City after the death of his mother to find his wayward girlfriend, Lou Bessie (the sassy, sharp-edged Alexis J. Rogers who's all red lips, cleavage and calculation), an opportunist who's not too particular about the city folks with whom she associates. Before long, romance blossoms between the lonely Elizabeth and the guileless Husband.

"You're not old, you're older," insists Husband, whose absolute sincerity comes as music to Elizabeth's ears.

But their budding affair faces obstacles from both Lou Bessie, who refuses to relinquish her hold on Husband, and Quilly, whose disapproval rekindles the sisters' long-held and still unresolved issues.

Speaking of which, Bruce and Wandachristine play the siblings superbly. Their banter is unforced, as if these two have been fussing and fighting for years. Their emotion feels genuine - as does the unfailing love that binds them still.