Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, directed by Janice Duclos
January 30-March 2, 2014 at Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, RI
This is the stuff of good theater. A great story written well, a smart set, and strong actors whose work is refined by a sensitive director all combine to envelop the audience in this drama set in the early 1900’s. Written by playwright Lynn Nottage whose works have earned many awards including a Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award, her play Intimate Apparel won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. It was originally produced in New York by Roundabout Theatre Company, and it would be surprising and unfortunate if this play did not live and breathe on the boards of Broadway again, in this incarnation of pure theatrical joy.
Through a lens generally panning community structure, this play focuses on a period in the life of a free-lance seamstress in 1903 through 1906. She has just turned thirty-five years old, has lived in the same boarding house for eighteen years, and continues to stuff her earnings into a bed quilt in order to eventually open an upscale beauty parlor for people like her: Black women who want to be pampered.
According to the program notes, playwright Nottage has described her play as “a meditation on loneliness,” and director Janice Duclas believes “this play asks each of us what we might be willing to sacrifice to find love.” Indeed, protagonist Esther Mills wrestles both sides of intimacy versus convention, and because of her resolve, champions her self-satisfaction. On her adventure in self-discovery, her boarding house landlady cautions her that “No decent woman would resort to such dalliance,” and, yet, that dalliance affirms for her that, “A gentle touch is gold in any country.” Esther gambles her iron-clad autonomy for what she expects is a golden touch initiated by a pen pal working on the building of the Panama Canal.
The production starts with projected images of photographs from the very early 1900’s that depict the living conditions of a mostly immigrant New York City population. The images are in sepia tone and have captions; together, the photos and the text create the tone in which the production firmly stays. The projections conjure the values of community, the urban lifestyle wrought with adversity during the coming together of so many ethnicities and cultural diversity at the turn of the century. The audience sees the images, and then steps into them to be enveloped by the story’s unfolding. All of the elements combine to sustain for all but brief moments a complete suspension of disbelief and total engagement in the life of Esther, a compelling heroine.
Mia Ellis portrays Esther with strength, fortitude, and resolve all tempered by an endearing vulnerability. Her performance is simply phenomenal because of the intensity and gentleness of character that permeate her every line, every gesture. Her voice has an unusual deepness, almost a nasality that originates deep inside her center, that somehow harkens to the period in which Esther’s story is told. Ellis as Esther exhibits grace and benevolence in multiple dimensions as the character interacts with other characters from social standings and cultures different from her own, and completely challenges her own ideals. Our heroine is always outwardly elegant, composed, and yet so very fragile on the inside.
Just as one never knows when the next message will come from a new pen pal, the character who sends Esther the letters appears in various parts of the theater, moving with each appearance closer and closer to Esther’s rented room and into Esther’s life. He is George, jauntily portrayed by Joe Wilson, Jr. Credit must be given to him and Speech & Voice Director Thom Jones for Mr. Wilson’s seemingly authentic Barbados accent. Mr. Wilson has created a character whose evolution takes the audience with him as he convincingly appears innocuously in the beginning and much differently as his fire-and-ice relationship with Esther evolves. Wilson plays George sweetly, pugnaciously, alluringly, beguilingly-all at the same time. He makes it easy for the audience to understand why Esther does what she does to get and keep him.
Esther and George’s relationship affects her friendships. The changes are palpable to the audience by the ensemble cast’s energetic connections. In fact, one moment between Ellis’ Esther and Mauro Hantman who portrays Mr. Marks, the Jewish merchant from whom she obtains fabric, is probably one of the most erotic moments in stage history. Although the only touching is of her hand to his new jacket’s collar, the poignancy of this moment represents the “petite mort” of their forbidden joining which they respect, but can not keep their presence in a room together from being communicated through sparks of mutual respect and intrigue.
Esther’s clientele certainly runs the extremes of social status. She creates intimate undergarments for a wealthy White socialite named Mrs. Van Buren who is portrayed with a convincing level of internally frenetic neurosis by actress Angela Brazil. She exudes quiet and not-so-quiet desperation that evokes more than an occasional chuckle from the audience. It is important to recognize that the audience’s chuckles are accompanied by a tilt of the head and a frown as Brazil manages to get the audience to laugh with her character, and not at her.
The other client who unknowingly betrays Esther is a lounge entertainer who makes more money with gigs played while on her back. Named Mayme, she is portrayed bouncingly by the only member of the cast who is not (yet) an Equity actor, Shelley Fort. Ms. Fort does not yet have the extreme level of control exhibited by the other actors in the cast, but this actually lends itself to the believability of her portrayal.
Only one of the cast has had forty-five years experience gracing the Trinity Rep stage, and that is Barbara Meek who portrays boarding house landlady Mrs. Dickson. Not a “sit in your rocking chair type,” Meeks manages to bring to this role a grandmotherly quality perfectly juxtaposed with the vivaciousness that gave rise to the Flapper.
All the actors wear their costumes as if real people are wearing their own clothes. Designed by Alison Walker Carrier, the period style is spot-on, and contributes to the creation of the sepia tone. The few articles that are supposed to be boldly colored are indeed that. The costumes capture and reflect the sensibilities of each character living their lifestyle, in their social class, at that time. The original design of what could be called “Esther’s 5th Avenue corset” captivates the frivolity of life with which she is so unfamiliar and for which she longs.
Patrick Lynch designed the uni-set to represent the boudoir of Mrs. Van Buren, the commerce area, or front room of Mr. Marks’, the sitting area of Mayme’s where her upright piano sits, and Esther’s living quarters. Light and dark woods are used to delineate affluence, and supple fabric adorns the spaces of Mrs. Van Buren and Mr. Marks on stage right. Smaller tables and a metal bed frame decorate Esther’s and Mayme’s spaces. The four separate playing areas each have their own identity and are smartly connected by a small staircase in the center. The mini-staircase, built almost as a landing, marries actors and design elements in a Gordon Craig style of economy that allows multi-directional movement from a central pivoting point.
The set and other areas around the stage that are used for action are lit by Lighting Designer John Ambrosone. He achieves that sepia tone most of the time which demonstrates an astute understanding of balancing color. There are, however, just a couple of “holes” where an actor falls into, or passes through, a dark spot. They were probably noticed by Production Stage Manager Christopher Michael Borg, and have already been corrected.
Theater is a mirror of the times, and that reflection has recently cast foreboding influences of television on staging plays at another LORT theatre in the area. One such reflection featured a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama staged expertly for camera close-ups; another, a world premiere, lacked any structural integrity past exposition of character, and not only reeked of a TV pilot episode, but actually erected a fourth wall of glass and broadcast the scenes’ dialogue through the sound system. These experiences made this reviewer strongly consider exclusive devotion to teaching the five higher education courses in the Humanities that occupy almost all of her time awake, and leaving the task of reviewing current theater productions to a perhaps younger generation who can appreciate the apparent morphing of theater to a “live studio audience.” Then, fate-and Director Janice Duclos- renews faith by reflecting all that makes theater the uniquely incredible experience it strives to be for both practitioners and audience. Thank you, Trinity Rep, for an outstanding play and production staged with wisdom and warmth guaranteed to delight even, and especially, the most discerning.
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