Arena scores with old-fashioned `Old Settler'


January 31, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Arena Players has nabbed a hot new play -- John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler." But it's also a nice old-fashioned play with the kind of characters you can care about. And, it's receiving a heartwarming local premiere under the direction of Amini Johari-Courts.

Set in the 1940s, "The Old Settler" tells the story of two middle-aged sisters in Harlem who take in a young male boarder. The sisters haven't always gotten along, and the boarder -- a Southerner with the unusual first name of "Husband" -- quickly stirs up old tensions.

A combination hayseed and mama's boy, affably played by Moreno Brown, Husband has come north searching for his sweetheart, Lou Bessie. But Lou Bessie isn't the girl he remembers. She's even changed her name to Charmaine.

Judi Anderson brings just the right nasty panache to Lou Bessie, who's the kind of hard-drinking, hard-living, man-crazy woman who used to be called a hussy. Lou Bessie doesn't like it down South; Husband doesn't like it up North, and compromise does not seem to be in the picture.

So, Husband transfers his affections to his landlady, Elizabeth Borny, depicted by Nura Saleema Bey as the soul of kindness. Elizabeth is old enough to be his mother, which is clearly part of the attraction. In the words of her sharp-tongued sister, Quilly -- portrayed with brash humor and more than a dash of intolerance by Sandra J. Meekins -- he's "a mama's boy looking for a new mama."

Elizabeth is the play's "old settler," a pejorative used by Lou Bessie to describe a middle-aged woman who's never been married and has no prospects. Elizabeth isn't too old to have her head turned, however, and Bey is adorable without being cloying as a grown woman giving in to one last chance to feel like a teen-ager.

The effect this romantic relationship has on the already strained sibling bond between Elizabeth and Quilly is the crux of the play, and even though you see it coming, the outcome is portrayed with conviction and genuine feeling by Bey and Meekins. (As is Arena's custom, all roles are double-cast; different actors will perform on different nights.)

"The Old Settler" has been one of the more popular new plays at regional theaters across the country, and Arena Players is lucky to have been able to add it to the season as a last-minute substitution. The plot, and even the characters, are fairly predictable, but in this case that also means they're touchingly recognizable.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 13. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

Benefit with the Bard

In other Arena Players news, Baltimore-born actor Charles S. Dutton will give two benefit performances of "An Evening of Shakespeare" at the theater at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. He has selected seven area actors to appear with him in this anthology of Shakespearean scenes.

Dutton starred in the Fox television series "Roc" and directed the coming HBO miniseries "The Corner." He is a graduate of Towson University and the Yale School of Drama. Among his theater credits are several lead roles written for him by playwright August Wilson.

Tickets to Saturday's gala performance are $50 and include a reception with Dutton. Tickets to Friday's performance are $25. All proceeds benefit the theater's mission of training local actors. For more information call 410-728-6500.

`War of the Worlds'

The Kennedy Center in Washington has been presenting a series of free performances called the Millennium Stage for nearly three years now. So far, however, none of the performances have been theater pieces. That changes on Feb. 8, when avant garde director Anne Bogart's New York company, SITI, will present "War of the Worlds." The hour-long play is billed as "a radio play by Howard Koch, based on the novel by H.W. Wells, as originally broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, by the CBS Mercury Theater on the Air, starring Orson Welles."

Show time is 6 p.m. in the Kennedy Center's Grand Foyer. For more information call 1-800-444-1324.

Children's program: 1

The Enoch Pratt Free Library, in association with Port Discovery and The Sun's Reading by 9 program, is sponsoring a theater arts program for 10 children, ages 7 to 9, and their parents or guardians, to be held from 2: 30 p.m. to 4: 30 p.m. Sundays, from March 5 to April 2. The program will culminate in a free public performance on April 2 in Port Discovery's MPT Studio. For information on how to participate, call Betsy Diamant-Cohen at 410-864-2716.

Children's program: 2

Pumpkin Theatre is offering after-school classes for children ages 6 to 12 on Tuesdays from Feb. 29 to May 9. Creative drama will be taught from 4: 30 to 5: 30 p.m. and will emphasize creativity, developmental skills and discipline; the cost is $135. A Performance Program, highlighting on-stage training, will be taught from 5: 45 p.m. to 7 p.m.; the cost is $150. All classes are held at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, 6200 N. Charles St. The registration deadline is Feb. 18. For more information call 410-828-1814.

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