BWW Reviews: UT-Austin's INTIMATE APPAREL is an Expertly Stitched Drama
Truth be told, I'm a bit unsure how to start this review. When I see something as astonishing and extraordinary as Intimate Apparel, I try to come up with something clever, witty, or poetic to kick off my critique, but I am so wonderfully flustered by this beautifully acted and well-crafted production that all I can think off to kick off this review is "Wow."
Intimate Apparel, written in 2003 by Lynn Nottage, is a quiet and subdued turn of the century drama. Our heroine, Esther, is a thirty-five year old African-American spinster who has moved from North Carolina to New York City to pursue a better life. When she begins receiving letters from George, a Barbados-born laborer at the Panama canal, Esther is forced to address her romantic feelings towards Mr. Marks, the Jewish man who sells her fabrics and her ideas for her future. While the play has plenty of themes and motifs-love, betrayal, race, class, femininity-Nottage balances all of them. While the overall idea about the fleeting nature of intimacy is apparent in every scene, Nottage doesn't hammer the message home. Her ideas are organic and flow easily through the story and characters, making the play absolutely riveting.
Mykal Monroe gives a remarkable performance as Esther. She's meek, plain, dowdy, and uptight, almost like Laura in A Glass Menagerie, but underneath her week visage is a courageous and steadfast woman. Monroe's performance is spellbinding. She captures your attention in every moment, and she is a pleasure and a treat to watch.
Monroe is supported by an equally outstanding five person ensemble. As Mrs. Dickson, the matron of Esther's boarding house, Nickclette Izuegbu is a stern, strong, independent woman whose concern for Esther is almost like that of a mother to a child. As Mrs. Van Buren, the Southern belle socialite who is one of Esther's most faithful clients, Amy Pittman balances her character's light, airy qualities and inner sadness with ease. John Smiley is wonderful as Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric seller, and he excels at bringing the energetic, somewhat lovelorn man to life. Amanda Morish is fantastic as Mayme, Esther's piano-playing prostitute friend, and Geoffrey Barnes is able to make George's earnestness in Act I and anger in Act II completely believable.
Director Melissa Maxwell does a wonderful job at focusing on the personal feel of the play. Almost all of the scenes are two-person moments between Esther and one of her counterparts, and the relationships created between Esther and those around her are nuanced and exceedingly delicate. Even Jocelyn Pettway's set, which initially feels a bit cluttered and claustrophobic, adds to the motif of personal relationships. Each of the supporting characters and their respective rooms are designated a corner of the stage. Each setting bleeds into the next, as if each character and their impact on Ester are at odds with each other. Ryan Andrus's lighting adds a beautiful dusty quality to the play, and Stephanie Busing's use of projections is quite effective and is integrated seamlessly into the piece. But of the design work, you'll probably remember Chin-Hua Yeh's costumes the most. As should be expected from a play about a seamstress, the costumes demand attention. They are lush and beautiful, and every piece is exquisitely tailored from meticulously chosen fabrics.
In a way, Intimate Apparel feels much like the clothes that Esther makes. It is beautiful and carefully tailored with just the right amount of accoutrement and decoration, and the play fits the cast and crew like a glove.
Photo: Nickclette Izuegbu (L) and Mykal Monroe (R) in INTIMATE APPAREL. Photo by Josh Rasmussen.
INTIMATE APPAREL, produced by UT-Austin's Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at 200 E 23rd St, Austin 78712 now thru Saturday, March 9th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $15-25. For tickets and information, please visit http://texasperformingarts.org/season/intimate-apparel-theatre-austin