In “The Old Settler,” John Henry Redwood takes a richly detailed look at World War II Harlem and two unmarried 50-plus sisters, Elizabeth (CCH Pounder) and Quilly (Jenifer Lewis), who are forced to come to terms with their lives and with each other. Director Sheldon Epps often allows the pace to become too leisurely and self-indulgent, but he successfully conveys every nuance of Redwood’s often hilarious yet poignant text. He is more than ably supported by the performances of Pounder and Lewis, as well as Christopher B. Duncan and Salli Richardson as the two young people who create a catharsis in the relationship of the sisters.
When the self-exiled Elizabeth gazes out the living room window of her spacious brownstone apartment (magnificently detailed by Gary Wissman), she looks down on a wartime Harlem that is going through a vibrant renaissance she does not share. She is resigned to her status as an “old settler,” a woman past her 40s with little prospect of ever being married. Sharing her residence with Quilly, Elizabeth does her best to sublimate her resentment that years earlier her younger sister ran off with the only man Elizabeth had ever loved. It is of little consolation that Quilly eventually lost him, too.
Redwood imbues the caustic but humor-filled exchanges between Elizabeth and Quilly with references to such legendary Harlem icons as the Savoy Ballroom, Small’s Paradise, the Apollo, the Alhambra, Connie’s Inn, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack and the Down Home Restaurant, painting a verbal portrait of an exciting, life-affirming swirl of activity going on in the streets around them. Director Epps allows a bit too many meaningful pauses and glances to slow down the action, but the performances are first-rate.
While Elizabeth is satisfied to retreat from life with a benign acceptance, Quilly is forever attacking her life — as a maid to a “white woman,” her activities as a member of her church’s women’s committee and the status of “Negro people” in America — with a deep-rooted surliness that is as comical as it is bad-tempered.
Both their lives are completely turned around by the arrival of a new boarder, the strapping but totally naive young Southern country boy Husband Witherspoon (Duncan), who has come to Harlem to fetch his childhood sweetheart, Lou Bessie (Richardson), back to South Carolina, but instead becomes infatuated with Elizabeth.
Pounder (a recent Emmy Award nominee for her recurring role in Fox’s “X-Files”) offers a tour de force performance as the life-wearied Elizabeth who gambles on one last hope for love, almost fearfully allowing herself to be won over by Husband’s enthusiastic courtship of her. It is awe-inspiring to watch her tentative transformation from repressed old maid into a totally alive, loving woman.
Lewis is equally impressive as the misanthropic Quilly, whose only grasp on civility is her deep-seated love for her sister. Lewis exhibits monumentally adept comic timing as Quilly skewers everything about her, especially the growing infatuation between her sister and Husband.
Duncan is perfect as the callow Husband who is totally incapable of suppressing any emotion. Also outstanding is Richardson’s sexy and manipulative Lou Bessie, who does not really want Husband but is determined to keep Elizabeth from having him.
The period costuming of Zoe DuFour and mood-enhancing sound design of Jon Gottlieb do much to reinforce the authenticity of the setting.