Theater review

'The Old Settler' at Atlas creates a time, a place and strong characters

Bad and beautiful: Leayne Freeman as the snide young Lou Bessie is delightfully hateful.
Bad and beautiful: Leayne Freeman as the snide young Lou Bessie is delightfully hateful. (Valerie Russell/russell Visual)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 23, 2010

Never underestimate the importance of a well-placed doily. When you walk into the Atlas Performing Arts Center's Theater Lab 2 to take your seat for "The Old Settler," the absorbing production rounding out African Continuum Theatre Company's 2009-10 season, you confront a tableau that exudes ladylike thrift and old-fashioned decorum. It's a kitchen and living room in a 1940s Harlem apartment. Framed photos stand sentry on a silk-shawl-covered table; a purse dangles delicately on a coat stand; and doilies adorn a sofa near a faded Persian carpet.

Right away, as set designer Timothy Jones surely intended, you find yourself contemplating not only a time and place but also a personality: Elizabeth Borny, the 55-year-old spinster who, in John Henry Redwood's 1997 drama, owns both the apartment and a heartache-filled past. Elizabeth's resigned and prudent temperament is the sounding board against which the play's wry, poignant, quietly tumultuous narrative reverberates, so the shrewdly arranged set pays off amply.

It's one of the nice touches in a production that, despite some flaws, manages to be satisfying: funny, affecting, and inhabited by characters who seem like real people. Under the deft guidance of director Eric Ruffin, the cast allows the allusions seeded through Redwood's script to conjure up an atmospheric World War II Harlem -- a world where the Savoy Ballroom offered a Kitchen Mechanics Night for African American maids and cooks, where a young girl might teach her beau to Lindy Hop, and where nonwhites were the first to be thrown off an overbooked train. (Matthew M. Nielson's sound design, incorporating period music, aids with the time travel.)

The milieu sparks culture clash when Elizabeth (Kecia A. Campbell) takes in a lodger: Husband Witherspoon (Rick Peete), a 29-year-old man from Frogmore, S.C. The arrangement sits badly with Husband's modish girlfriend Lou Bessie (Leayne Freeman), who sneers at Elizabeth for using unsophisticated words like "reckon," and who threatens to become a malicious saboteur when Husband's relationship with his landlady deepens.

Director Ruffin's ace card turns out to be Natalie G. Tucker as Elizabeth's cantankerous, recently single sister Quilly. With her assured stage presence and dry delivery of the character's quips, the constantly entertaining Tucker brings the play's humor to the fore, while still suggesting the strains and deep bonds between the sisters.

In the central role, Campbell is sometimes stagy, but at other times she meshes nicely with the character -- as in a key Act 2 sequence, when sudden happiness seems to light up Elizabeth's tones, expressions and movements. (Designer Samantha Jones's costumes provide telling clues to the characters' social and emotional journeys, as well as hinting at the complexities of the era's sartorial codes.)

The engaging Peete invests Husband with an intriguing mix of charm, determination and naivete. And Freeman's snide, drop-dead-gorgeous Lou Bessie is a figure you can love to hate.

Wren is a freelance writer.

The Old Settler

by John Henry Redwood. Directed by Eric Ruffin; light design, Arnika L. Downey. About 2 1/2 hours. Through May 15 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit

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