Humorous and heartbreaking Public Theatre will stage ‘The Old Settler,’ which puts two middle-aged sisters front and center.

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LEWISTON – When The Public Theatre aims for the heart, it’s a pretty sure bet it will score a hit.

“The Old Settler” is just that kind of play. It combines a powerful mix of comedy and drama for an emotionally satisfying old-fashioned play that runs from Jan. 26 through Feb. 4.

Set against the backdrop of Harlem in 1943, the play explores the bond between sisters, as well as the joys and heartache of a May-December love. Two middle-aged African-American sisters bring a young male roomer into their lives to help pay the rent. Romance begins to blossom between the young man and the older unmarried sister (the “Old Settler”), and a humorous and heartbreaking story unfolds.

“We have wanted to do this play for a long time,” said director Janet Mitchko. “I think the audience is going to fall in love with these people.”

She calls “The Old Settler” a “heart-centered” play that reflects a great joy for life.

“You really root for these people,” Mitchko said. “The relationship between the sisters is really the heart of the play. For anyone who’s ever been in the company of middle-aged siblings who live together, you will appreciate how accurately the playwright has captured these women.”

Mitchko pointed out that the sassy smart-mouthing interaction between the two older sisters is a lot like the audience-pleasing wisecracks of the two older men in last season’s “A Month of Sundays.”

Mitchko’s cast features four professional actors from New York: are Joan Valentina as Elizabeth, Geany Massai as Quilly, Daniel Shelley as Husband and Cherita Armstrong as Lou Bessie.

The world of Harlem in 1943 will be created by set designer Michael Reidy and lighting designer Adam Klein, with period costumes designed by Kathleen Brown.

“This takes place in a time when a man took off his hat when he entered the room,” Mitchko said. She noted that it takes place in Harlem at the height of its creative energy, but it also serves as the site of a universal story of a spinster who discovers a last chance for love on her doorstep.

This production by The Public Theatre is the Maine premier of “The Old Settler. It was one of the 10 most-produced plays in America from 1998 to 2000. Following its original off-Broadway production starring Leslie Uggams, “The Old Settler” was turned into a film for PBS, starring real-life sisters Felicia Rashad and Debbie Allen.

Written by John Henry Redwood, “The Old Settler” first opened in 1997. Prior to the formal opening, the play had been chosen to be performed in the 1995 Eugene O’Neill Theatre Conference in Waterford, Conn. It was seen there by the Russian Theatre Union, which chose it to be performed in Russia in 1996, with both an American and a Russian cast.

Redwood said one of the greatest honors accorded the play came in Russia when “a woman stood up and said that she didn’t believe that a man had written this play. That was the greatest compliment in the world to me.”

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