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Theater review: 'The Old Settler' at International City Theatre

June 9, 2011 |  5:00 pm


"The Old Settler" is slang for a never-married, middle-aged African American woman, a term that propels John Henry Redwood's bittersweet romantic comedy in its respectably entertaining International City Theatre production.

Welcome to Harlem in 1943, when wartime America permits blacks to serve in the military without the same rights as their white contemporaries, hardly the era's only racial inequity. Elizabeth Borny (understated Veralyn Jones) is the benign title spinster, Quilly McGrath (scene-stealing Karen Malina White), her epically cranky sister. Quilly, separated from her husband and living with Elizabeth, operates as Redwood's voice of comment.

Enter naive boarder Husband Witherspoon (Ryan Vincent Anderson), a South Carolina émigré searching for girlfriend Lou Bessie, alias Charmaine (Tarina Pouncy), whose gold-digging trek preceded his arrival. As mama's-boy Husband gravitates toward kindly Elizabeth, Quilly's assertions of Oedipal transference give way to long-standing grievances between the sisters.

Director caryn desai handles this mix of soap and sociology with unfussy simplicity, the ambiance assisted by designer Kurt Boetcher's detailed set, Bill Georges' lighting and sound and Kim DeShazo's period costumes. Jones and White are wholly credible, quite the equals of Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen in the 2001 television adaptation. Anderson and Pouncy, though proficient, have fewer opportunities for subtlety, given the broader, functional strokes of their characters.

The principal liability is a preordained narrative course.  From the early scenes of Husband and Elizabeth discovering their compatibility and the intimations of what's behind Quilly and Elizabeth's clashes, the outcome isn't exactly unforeseeable. That doesn't hinder its old-school appeal. Audiences will find much to appreciate here.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Old Settler," International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $37 and $44. (562) 436-4610 or Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Veralyn Jones, left, Ryan Vincent Anderson and Karen Malina White. Credit: Carlos Delgado.