BWW Reviews: Riveting INTIMATE APPAREL Takes Center Stage at Trinity Rep
Trinity Repertory Company hosts the Rhode Island premiere of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, a superbly-crafted, utterly-captivating theatrical piece. Intimate Apparel touches each emotion, inspiring both outright laughter and audible, astonished gasps from the audience from its opening lines. Trinity's production excels in absolutely every aspect: deeply-complex characters; thoroughly-compelling storytelling; outstanding, ovation-worthy acting; and truly impressive costumes and set pieces.
Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, based the finely-wrought Intimate Apparel on her own family's history - specifically her great-grandmother's experiences as a seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York - and her brilliant attention to detail in both characterization and narrative structure is evident throughout the play.
The story centers on Esther Mills (Mia Ellis), an African-American woman living in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. Esther's admirable industry and considerable talent allow her to support herself as a skilled seamstress - her specialty being the very intimate apparel of the play's title - and her eclectic clientele ranges from Manhattan's elite set to struggling saloon singers.
Though Esther dreams of marriage, she is - first and foremost - a practical woman. Reaching her thirty-fifth birthday and knowing her prospects are limited, she instead focuses her energies on saving every spare dollar toward her ultimate goal: ownership of an elegant beauty parlor for black women. Her single-mindedness faces a major distraction, however, when she strikes up a friendly, long-distance correspondence with George Armstrong, a laborer working in Panama on the construction of the famed canal.
Ellis delivers a knockout, seasoned performance as Esther Mills, beautifully embodying the self-possession, creativity, and compassion that form the core of her character. This is a substantive, breakthrough role for Ellis in her first year as a resident actor at Trinity Rep, and she authentically portrays both Esther's great strengths and lingering insecurities. She has some especially poignant scenes when Esther haltingly reveals her inability to read or write to the other characters, and these admissions - presented with the ideal balance of humility and dignity - make Esther's missives to George all the more poignant. Ellis' acting touches the audience in a very real way, and her skillful stage work allows theatergoers to keenly appreciate the character's joys and heartaches as the narrative develops.
Joe Wilson, Jr. gives a finely-nuanced performance as Esther's "Panama man," George Armstrong. Wilson lends his voice to George's Caribbean accent, presented in an especially smooth and lovely way during act one, as George and Esther's romance blossoms through their letter writing. The second act allows Wilson to stretch in the role, when the long-awaited George steps off the letters' pages and into reality. Wilson captures this transformation at the precise instant it takes place - George and Esther's first meeting on their wedding day - with subtle changes in his stance and body language telegraphing the distinct differences between the gracious gentleman Esther has known and the flesh-and-blood man at her side.
The other members of this remarkable ensemble cast likewise portray an array fascinating and complex personalities. Nottage described Intimate Apparel as "a meditation on loneliness," and that concept is borne out clearly in each of the play's characters. Their interactions with Esther also move the story into a deeper and quite thoughtful exploration of race and ethnicity, gender roles, and class and societal expectations in the early 1900s.
Angela Brazil plays Mrs. Van Buren, Esther's wealthy, high-profile client. Brazil earns some big laughs in the role, which allows her to be grand and over-the-top in all the right ways, but she also steadily breaks down the artifice of Mrs. Van Buren's glittering lifestyle to deal with much weightier matters. Van Buren considers Esther a trusted confidante, and as she unburdens more and more intimate secrets, Brazil gradually reveals the Fifth Avenue socialite's growing dependence on and deepening attachment to her African-American seamstress.
Another character with a deepening attachment to Esther is Mr. Marks, a Romanian-born Jewish man. Mauro Hantman plays the soft-spoken fabric seller with convincing genuineness, humility, and a discernable respect in all of his dealings with Esther. The tender, companionable dynamic of their personal and professional rapport counterbalances the swift and harsh changes of Esther's other close relationships, while the impossible quality of their unspoken attachment makes each scene between Hantman and Ellis still more poignant and bittersweet.
The always-wonderful Barbara Meek opens the show as Mrs. Dickson, Esther's motherly-if-meddling landlady. Meek and Ellis play especially well off of each other and are enjoyable, engaging scene partners. Meek is a master at her craft, and she holds the audience in the palm of her hand whether delivering lighthearted banter (Mrs. Dickson has some of the funniest lines in the show) or a deeply-serious monologue.
Shelley Fort, a second-year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program, easily keeps pace with the veteran cast members. Fort's portrayal of fallen-woman Mayme is brassy and layered as she touches on the character's unreachable dreams, deep-seated hurts, and the quick-witted humor that serves as her most ready defense. Fort and Ellis have a particularly intense and compelling scene together late in the second act that is a standout moment for both women in the production.
Patrick Lynch designed a versatile and intricately-detailed four-part set piece for Intimate Apparel. Small touches in each space designate the character and circumstances of its inhabitant - the expensive trinkets in Mrs. Van Buren's boudoir, for example, or the contrast of rich fabrics and well-worn personal belongings in Mr. Marks' shop - and the attention to period-appropriate pieces sets the time and place even before the production begins.
Photo projections on the high walls also ground the audience in the sights and sounds of New York City, 1905, while John Ambrosone's lighting design establishes a dreamy, romantic tone for Esther and George's first innocent flirtations through mail-only correspondence. Alison Walker Carrier's sumptuous costumes - from Esther's finely-crafted corsetry to George's tailored wool suit - are exquisitely rendered and a feast for the eyes.
Intimate Apparel, directed by TRC's own Janice Duclos, plays Trinity Repertory Company's downstairs Dowling Theater through March 2, 2014. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $28-$68.
Photo by Mark Turek