Theatre Mirror Reviews-"Intimate Apparel"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth

"Intimate Apparel"

Reviewed by Sheila Barth

After a week of being snowbound and pummeled with damaging ice and snow, I treated myself to the Saturday matinee of Lyric Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s touching play, “Intimate Apparel”. It is, indeed, a huge treat. Every facet of this two-act play gleams on its own dramatic, artistic power, thanks to Director Summer L. Williams’ sensitivity, creative flair, and knowledge, along with her fantastic atmosphere-setting crew, including lighting designer Chris Hudacs, sound designer Kelsey, Jarboe and Music Director Stephanie LaBolt’s period piano musical interludes between scenes.

Nottage has a divine gift for writing magnificent plays, especially about African-American women and their compromising situations throughout the eras.

In her blockbuster, Pulitzer, multi-award winning play, “Ruined,” Nottage exposed the rape and carnage women endured in the Congo. In “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” she explored the undermining of and prejudice against African American actresses, who were reduced to playing “Mammy” or maid-style subservient roles.

In “Intimate Apparel,” she tackles another lofty topic - the situation of Esther Wells, a plain-looking, unmarried, 35-year-old African-American woman, who, in 1905, sews and creates exquisite intimate apparel for women of all walks of life. But she secretly dreams about opening her own beauty salon for women of color. After leaving her farm home in North Carolina at age 17, and living in a Manhattan women’s boarding house under the kindly care of landlady Mrs. Dickson (talented Boston actress Cheryl D. Singleton) since then, Esther spends every day, working at her Singer machine. Saying she’s too homely for anyone to marry, Esther concentrates on working, stashing her earnings in her bed quilt, waiting for that magic moment when she’ll open her salon.

 Portraying self-conscious Esther, Lindsey McWhorter is so convincing, one has the feeling she has channeled an Esther-type ancestor. In scenes with marvelous Nael Nacer, portraying Orthodox Jewish fabrics merchant, Mr. Marks, the duo is heart-wrenching. He is awaiting a bride, (in his family-arranged marriage), to arrive from his native Roumania, but he clearly admires Esther and her amazing knowledge of and attention to finest, imported silk, satin, wool, brocade, lace, and other fabrics.

The two are shy, gentle, falling in love with each other, but they politely maintain their distance, mindful of their differing traditions. As an Orthodox Jew, Marks can’t allow another woman to touch him, excluding his wife - when or if he marries. Also, Esther is acutely aware of her lowly place in life.

Mr. Marks’ tender kindnesses to Esther are thwarted by her chance correspondence with a handsome, muscular Barbados native named George Armstrong (Brandon G. Green) working on the Panama Canal. Although Esther can’t read or write, she is assisted by her wealthy, bored, childless, white customer, Mrs. Van Buren, (Amanda Ruggiero), who eagerly writes Esther’s responses to the lonely, hardworking, flowery-writing gentleman. Even though Van Buren has looks and luxury, she lacks the love and devotion she craves.

In fact, each character’s role twists and turns, revealing another facet of his and her personality, wants, desires, and intentions, not necessarily noble, yet gut-wrenching.   

Set designer Anne Sherer cleverly created an upper-level nook for Marks’ fabric shop above the stage, on a right-hand platform, while George’s contrasting, weatherbeaten, wharf space is on the upper left platform. The stage is nicely decorated with early 1900‘s, period furnishings - deep red drapes, a bed centrally located, a piano in the back right rear, and a desk upstage, that doubles for Esther’s sewing machine and a writing desk. Amanda Mujica’s costumes clearly define the era, its garb, and this cross-section of humanity.  George seems to be any woman’s ideal  mate. He’s handsome, strong, hardworking, sweet-talking, and attentive; but three months after his and Esther’s wedding, and being unable to get steady work, he changes. Was he too good to be real? Was he a cad all along? Green keeps us rapt, wondering.

Then, too, there’s Esther’s prostitute friend, Mayme, who plays the piano and sings well, but gave up looking for love a long time ago, knowing she’s unacceptable to gentlemen-type fellows. Kris Sidberry as Mayme is confident, yet tragic. She damns herself with her illicit behavior and ruins Esther’s life unknowingly.  

 Each character’s personality is clearly visible, from Esther and Mrs. Dickson’s modest clothing to Mayme’s tawdry garb, Mrs. Van Buren’s luxury lingerie, Mr. Marks’ ethnic clothing, and the sexy, bejeweled  corsets and bustiers Esther creates.

Brandon G. Green is enticing, charming, as George, especially during his wedding scene with Esther, as the two shyly, self-consciously gaze at each other, as a photographer snaps their picture. Their projected image is highlight on a panel, labeled, “an unidentified Negro couple, ca.1905.”

Although “Intimate Apparel” focuses on a plain-looking, uneducated woman who wants to make herself and others feel beautiful, the interweaving of these characters, their flawed personalities, their unrequited love and dreams, is a lovely, tenderly drafted tale.

The only flaw is dialect coach Bryn Austin’s attempt to reflect the Melting Pot’s many accents, making it difficult to capture some character’s words. George’s melodic Caribbean cadence and Marks‘ Roumanian accent are charming, but Mrs. Dickson’s and Esther’s Southern dialect is difficult at times for us Yankees to distinguish. 

However, their body language rings out loud and clear, touching our souls.

"Intimate Apparel" (till 14 March)
@ Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit Street, PROVIDENCE RI

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide