Luna Settles Into a New Home

The Luna Stage is back from the dead. Or at least real estate purgatory. That alone is cause for celebration. But the company’s opening offering rewards fans of strong directing and acting.

Luna has returned with “The Old Settler,” the late John Henry Redwood’s 1997 domestic drama set in 1943 Harlem.

It’s a window on a lost world of women working as domestics, urban refugees from the rural South, resisting or embracing the temptations of New York.

Bess (Suzzanne Douglas), the old settler — ‘40s Harlem slang for an old maid — of the title, has taken in her overbearing sister Quilly (Ami Brabson), despite some not-very-well hidden grievance.

Into this uneasy household comes Bess’s boarder Husband (Jamahl Marsh), a young South Carolina rube who’s come to search for Lou Bessie, the girl who left him behind some time ago.

It’s pretty sudsy stuff, rendered compelling by director Susan Kerner and a uniformly fine cast.

As Lou Bessie, a siren who’s rechristened herself Charmaine in the anything goes atmosphere of the big city, Nikkole Salter is wonderfully sultry, crass and selfish. Marsh has the least believable character, but he brings Husband to life with a balance of naivete and determination.

The sisters are the heart of the play, and Douglas and Brabson give full value, packing a lifetime of love and conflict into a couple of compact hours, played on Robert Monaco’s deftly realized threadbare set.

Along the way, the play gives us a bit of history, glimpsed as asides in the story. Husband on why he’s not off fighting in the war. Quilly narrating the cruelty of segregation on a train ride between New York and Georgia. In the hands of these actors, it feels like life and not a lecture.

A word about Luna Stage’s new stage. The company had to vacate its old home on Bloomfield Avenue near the Montclair Art Museum more than a year ago. Its new digs on Valley Road in West Orange feel cozy and familiar, if a bit smaller than the old place. Here’s hoping they get to stay for a good long time.

The Old Settler continues for three more weekends, with performances Thursday through Sunday. Buy tickets here. Luna is located at 555 Valley Road in West Orange.

Photos by Steven Lawler.

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