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Theater Review: The Old Settler
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2010-02-17

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Playwright: John Henry Redwood
At: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor, Glencoe
Phone: 847-242-6000; $40-$65
Runs through: March 28
As quaint as the notion may seem today, there was a time once when an American woman's worth was calculated almost exclusively in terms of marriage to a community-approved consort and subsequent production of several likewise exemplary children. And in wartime, amid tensions engendered by the shortage of suitable men, Mothers' Day, that annual celebration of procreative prowess, enjoyed an elevated importance in recognition of families with missing sons. These factors do not rest easy with the Borny sisters, spinster Elizabeth and divorcée Quilly, whose duties at their Harlem church only serve to highlight their single status, particularly after Elizabeth agrees to take in a temporary boarder—the fresh-off-the-farm Mr. Witherspoon, come searching for his home-town sweetheart, Miss Lou Bessie Preston.

John Henry Redwood's play may be viewed as a documentary on social changes precipitated by World War II—Elizabeth and Quilly's acceptance of their humble position among their peers contrasting with Lou Bessie's unswerving, often ruthless, ambitions. There are also nostalgic aspects in the author's invocation of partyline telephones, transitory fashions ( zoot suits, seamed stockings ) , and hours measured by radio broadcasts. As domestic drama, however, Redwood's plot sometimes reveals its construction a bit too tidily ( beginning with a prince charming whose own mother saw fit to christen him "Husband" ) , but this doesn't mean that the story's conflicts resonate any the less in 2010, when scandal still besets women of—ahem!—certain age who choose to ally themselves with younger companions.

It's to the credit of Ron OJ Parson's direction for this Writers' Theatre production, and the acting skills of Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Wandachristine, that we remain almost totally oblivious to these detachments for the 2 hours-plus duration of its performance. Our attention is instead riveted on our universe ( accurate right down to the shifting of the light outside the window ) and the fates of its denizens, our empathy extending not only to the "old settler" siblings whose opportunities will remain forever restricted, but to the fickle Husband caught between old and new lifestyles, and even to the defiant Lou Bessie, who has her reasons for seeking revenge on her elders.

There's no denying the long and chilly trek to the north suburbs, but the quality evidenced at this artistic oasis rivals—frequently surpasses— those of many venues more logistically accessible to deliver an evening with characters that, having made their acquaintance in these intimate quarters, you will never forget.


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