PBS launches its “Hollywood Presents” series with an adaptation of John Henry Redwood’s play “The Old Settler,” a work set in WWII Harlem that provides two solid roles for Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, who also directs. Public television seems a bit behind the curve in this area, since HBO and Showtime have both been producing play-to-film adaptations with regularity, taking over for PBS’ previous program, “American Plahyhouse.” “Old Settler” is a decent work, but certainly not an exciting one; it’s pretty stodgy and soapish, a quality that’s heightened by the limited production values. Older women will be the primary audience for this drama about two sisters and a young man who threatens to come between them.
The pic is shot in high definition format, which gives it a crisp look. There’s no question it’s a significant improvement over video, but it’s far closer in texture to tape than film. Allen and her director of photography, John W. Simmons, haven’t quite figured out the strengths and weaknesses of the format — which is understandable given its recent introduction. The close-up shots of Allen and Rashad look odd here, and there’s a self-consciousness to the editing and an occasional awkwardness to the framing.
But still, the performances come through, especially when Allen stops moving the actors around the nicely appointed apartment, designed by John Iacovelli, and lets them engage each other directly. Efforts to open up the play, taking us to the Savoy Ballroom, for example, fall quite flat, and the sense of period instead relies on Marilyn Matthews’ costumes and Dwight D. Andrews’ music.
Rashad plays Elizabeth, who’s called an “old settler” because she’s middle age and unmarried, with no prospects on the horizon. That changes when she takes a tenant into her Harlem apartment, a younger man from South Carolina named Husband (Bumper Robinson). Husband is looking to reconnect with his girlfriend from down South, Lou Bessie (Crystal Fox), although he soon finds that she has changed her name and shacked up with another, hipper guy.
Elizabeth’s sister Quilly (Allen) immediately expresses displeasure about the intrusion of a roommate, and his presence causes long-latent sibling tensions to surface. When Husband begins courting Elizabeth, Quilly is both jealous and certain the relationship can never work. Allen and Rashad make convincing sisters, and their dramatic scenes together manage to avoid too much sentimentality, until the end.
As Husband, Robinson (“Guys Like Us,” “Party Girl”) provides a nice straightforwardness as the country boy arrived in the big city. He’s not especially expressive, but since he’s the pawn in the conflicts between the women that works fine here.
Fox delivers a lot more personality with the cocksure Lou Bessie.