(photo courtesy : Dale Dudeck)
Written by Patrick Chavis
When walking into the Waltmar Theatre, the creativity of the set catches your attention right away. The set is separated from the audience by using the front of the stage floor and backdrop. Actually the set itself can be described as surreal. Sewing machine parts and materials are plastered all over the ground, and the backdrop looks like damaged cloth that’s been badly patched together. These visuals from the set prepare you for a 2 and a half hour drama full of unexpected twists from a variety of unique perspectives. Like the torn cloth and the dirty set, the early twentieth century was in disarray, and we are still foaming from the aftermath.
Intimate Apparel is about a black seamstress named Esther (Chelsea Davis) working in 1900s New York City. Specifically we view her through her interactions with her friend and clients. Esther’s friend Mayme is (Arianna Behrens), a “mixed blood” (biracial) prostitute. Her employer is Mrs. Van Buren (Rachel Gallagher), a wealthy, white member of the upper class who enjoys lingerie. Mr. Marks (Jeremy Howard) is a Romanian Jew who sells fabrics. Ms. Dickerson (Regina Bryant) is Esther’s landlady, and George Armstrong (Tommie Russell) is Esther’s letter writing love interest from Barbados who is working on the Panama Canal. As the play moves along we see just how intimate all of these characters become, while still keeping their true feelings somewhat hidden beneath the surface (like lingerie).
The play covers so much –class, race, sexuality, religion –all while using nothing more than the life of a lonely seamstress as the viewpoint. It would be easy to say the show tackles too much. But these are just extra details scattered along the narrative of a black woman navigating a very restrictive world. There are some great moments between Esther and her wealthy boss Mrs. Van Buren. There is something of a “closeness” between these two women. Both exhibit an “almost” friendship, but many factors in the story prevent this friendship from actually forming.
There are some problems with the show’s emotional levels. Sometimes certain performers struggle to make their emotional responses to the onstage action appropriate. Deeper study for the actors on how to connect their feelings and emotional responses to their scenes would make the performance considerably more consistent and enjoyable.
Esther’s close friend Mayme actually plays the piano and sings instead of relying on a pre-recorded track. The moment when Mayme and Esther sing together is cute and one of the most enjoyable treats Intimate Apparel has to offer.
Love letters are read several times by George Armstrong. The letters are romantic, and Russell narrates them perfectly. The added projection of the letters on the screen on the stage is nice touch, but having the projection up while the actor is performing down in the audience at the same time, while entertaining, forces the audience to either choose to look at the stage and lettering, or move their bodies towards the actors. With so much already going on, it just distracts from what’s being said. Still Tommie Russell’s performance as George Armstrong is excellent.
This play was meant to leave the audience with an intense feeling of dissatisfaction. No one in this story really gets what they want and the audience is left with a really “real” answer, and it’s not explained or sugar-coated. This production has its merits and gets the story across quite well, but its uneven performances and direction choices (namely picking style over substance at times) does distract from and take away from the quality of the overall show.
Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage opens at Waltmar Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, and continues Dec. 2-3 and 8-10, with additional performances on Dec. 3 and 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $20.