As a snapshot of Harlem in 1943, John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" evokes some historical artifacts that have faded into obscurity — party line telephones, the Savoy Ballroom — and others that stubbornly endure in more camouflaged form, i.e., segregationist tactics that stack the economic deck.
Nevertheless, Redwood's 1998 romantic dramedy is first and foremost a humanist work with a vision of endurance and connectedness that transcends race and politics, and its best qualities are admirably served in William Stanford Davis' fine staging at the Pico Playhouse.
Crisp, naturalistic dialogue and tight classical construction drive the generation-spanning love affair between Elizabeth (Ruby Hinds), a middle-aged spinster, and none-too-subtly named Husband (John R. Davidson), the much younger recent arrival from South Carolina renting a room in her tenement apartment. Their budding romance arouses deep resentment in Elizabeth's younger sister Quilly, played with a nuanced balance of selfishness and protectiveness by Jolie Oliver, whose impeccable comic timing perfectly complements Hinds' stoic dignity.
Hinds and Davidson handle their relationship story line with a touching simplicity that minimizes the artifice in its predictable soap opera trajectory. Even more melodrama limits the impact of Husband's prior love interest (Crystal Garrett), a Jezebel figure straight out of a chitlin' circuit morality play.
What elevates this revival is the riveting interplay between Oliver and Hinds as the estranged siblings facing deep-seated conflicts with naked emotional honesty — there's no plot safety net to coast on here. As icing on the cake, the songs threaded through the play showcase Hinds' background as an opera singer — by the end she had me wishing for an encore.
"The Old Settler," Pico Playhouse, 10508 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 27. $32. (323) 960-7712 or www.plays411.com/oldsettler. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.