BWW Reviews: The Ensemble Theatre's THE OLD SETTLER is Entertaining
The Ensemble Theatre is currently producing a revival of John Henry Redwood's 1997 dramedy THE OLD SETTLER. The interesting piece, which examines various types of love, first premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. During it developmental stages it was part of the 1995 Eugene O'Neill Theatre Conference in Waterford, Connecticut and was rehearsed and performed in several Russian cities in 1996 by both an American and Russian cast. PBS also filmed it for a TV Movie adaption starring Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rasad, which originally aired on April 25, 2001. Additionally, the show has proven to be quite popular in regional theatres, and The Ensemble Theatre's entertaining production ensures Houston audiences know why.
THE OLD SETTLER tells the story of two sisters living in Harlem in the spring of 1943. The devastating effects of The Great Depression and World War II have caused Elizabeth "Bess" Borny to take in her sister Quilly McGrath; however, she needs more assistance paying her rent, so she has allowed Husband Witherspoon, a good Christian boy from down South, to live with her. Quilly is concerned about what the community may think about the women when the male boarder moves in, but Bess can't be bothered by that. Husband is hoping to find his estranged girlfriend, Lou Bessie, marry her, and bring her back home to the South.
Direction by Eileen J. Morris guarantees that her cast creates believable characters, which makes the words of John Henry Redwood carry emotional weight. The struggles they experience are struggles that people could, and still do, face today. She excels in having her cast bring out the tender moments, playing on the hearts of the audiences. Yet the series of final confrontations weren't as satiating as I would have liked, but the writing in those moments didn't seem as strong as the others either.
Detria Ward presides over the evening as Bess, the "old settler" (an idiom used to describe an older woman who has never been married and is without any marriage prospects). Her character, concerned with getting by during the tough economic times, is a steadfast and strong woman. Her resolve slowly melts as she develops romantic feelings for her young boarder Husband. Unconcerned by what others think of her, Detria Ward's Bess allows her passion and emotions to take control, showing just how impulsive love can make anyone.
The stubborn and outspoken Quilly, played to perfection by Bebe Wilson, draws the largest reactions from the audience. She rants about the inequities of life, earning many a laugh. Furthermore, Bebe Wilson's Quilly constantly argues with her older sister, crafting a character that is a living, breathing representation of the term "sibling rivalry." Despite her unwavering resolve, it is Bebe Wilson' ability to bring to life Quilly's true love for her sister that gives this play many a heartwarming moment.
Roc Living's Husband Witherspoon is reminiscent of Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. He crafts a character that is full of Southern charm and is horribly naïve. Personally, I would have loved to see the character change throughout the course of the play, but John Henry Redwood has written a rather static character that only serves to muddy the already messy relationship between Bess and Quilly.
Lou Bessie Preston, also known as Charmaine, is played well by Samatha West. Her portrayal of Lou Bessie, especially with her higher voice and pointed inflection, reminded me of Karen Malina White as Charmaine Brown on The Cosby Show and A Different World. The major difference between the two Charmaines is that Samantaha West's character, as written, never redeems herself or becomes likeable. Her Lou Bessie/Charmaine is brash and bold, and the audience gleefully watches as she gets her comeuppance.
Janelle Flanagan's Scenic Design is beautiful, warm, and inviting. Stocked with period appropriate pieces, she creates a Harlem apartment that I would be comfortable calling home. Moreover, it silently gives audiences a sense of who Bess and Quilly are, how they live, and the type of life they enjoy.
Costume Design by Macy Perrone recreates a breadth of 1940s fashions. She has also well tailored each piece to the cast member that wears it, ensuring that every clothing choice looks good and flatters the wearer.
Eric Marsh's Lighting Design keeps the stage bathed in mostly bright lighting. My seat was in the third row, which was closer than I typically chose to sit. I would have liked to see more variation in the lighting, especially between scenes that occur in the middle of night as compared to those that occur in the middle of the day. However, that variation may be noticeable when not seated so closely to the stage. Lastly, the dappled lighting gobo pattern projected over the dining room/kitchen part of the stage seemed like an awkward choice to me. It did not visibly seem to match the curtains hanging opposite it, which I assume was the justification for the choice.
THE OLD SETTLER, as produced by The Ensemble Theatre, makes for a delightfully entertaining evening of theatre. Houston audiences who venture out to this production are in for a true treat, especially when absorbing the dynamic and fascinating chemistry that Detria Ward and Bebe Wilson create on stage.
THE OLD SETTLER runs at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, Houston, 77002 now through June 1, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.ensemblehouston.com or call (713) 520-0055.
Photos by Henry Edwards, Jr. Courtesy of The Ensemble Theatre.
Detria Ward & Bebe Wilson.
L to R: Detria Ward, Samantha West & Bebe Wilson.
Roc Living & Detria Ward.