BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL at Playhouse On Park

BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL at Playhouse On ParkThe art of creation, whether it be a beautiful painting, a poem, or a piece of clothing can be a very personal experience. The artist expresses herself through each stroke of the pen or flick of the paintbrush and aims to capture the world as she sees it or as she would like it to be. But creation, like life, can be as messy as it is beautiful, as flawed as it is perfect, and as simple as it is magnificent. Such is the life of Esther Mills, the character at the center of Pulitzer Prize winner, Lynn Nottage's play, INTIMATE APPAREL, which is now playing at West Hartford's Playhouse on Park.

Esther (Darlene Hope) is a plain, but gifted African-American woman living in New York City at the turn of the century who has reached an age (35) where she feels her hopes of one day finding a husband may be long gone. Esther lives in a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray) where she spends her days behind the sewing machine creating magnificent undergarments for the ladies of New York. These ladies range from the high-class Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider) a socialite with a troubled marriage, to the low-class, Mayme (Zuri Eshun) a prostitute who performs in the Tenderloin. The garments Esther creates are lavish and unique, partly thanks to a fabric supplier, the Orthodox Jewish Mr. Marks (Ben McLaughlin), who keeps Esther stocked with some of the best fabrics arriving at the docks each week. Esther's world is upended when she begins corresponding with George (Beethovan Oden), a laborer from Panama who is working to dig the now-famous canal. Over the course of the play, the audience witnesses Esther's blossoming relationship with George via letter (Act I) and the realities of her life after her marriage to this man she has only known on paper (Act II).BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL at Playhouse On Park

INTIMATE APPAREL is a simple, delicate, yet emotionally complex story with a script that is poetic and heart-wrenching at times. Esther's tale is like the garments she creates - sturdy and dependable yet accented with bits of beauty, sometimes leading to love, and other times to heartbreak. As the stalwart seamstress, Darlene Hope is timid and shy, but with a fiery passion behind her eyes. She conveys Esther's desperation to find love, and her willingness to suspend truth and reason at times to feel as beautiful and wanted as the pieces she sells to her clients. She also displays the giddiness of a young girl at the prospect of new love and at the confusion of feelings she is experiencing for the first time. As George, Esther's suitor and, eventually, husband, Beethovan Oden is suave and calculating, yet vulnerable. He delivers George's words with a sensuous voice and Caribbean accent that gives a passionate spin to Ms. Nottage's beautiful prose. The four other characters in Esther's life form a living compass of sorts guiding her and helping her find her way through these unfamiliar experiences. As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray is the wise, and sometimes over-cautious "true north" of Esther's life. Anna Laura Strider, who plays the wealthy 5th Avenue socialite Mrs. Van Buren, is playful and kind, and switches with ease from the trivial patter of the boudoir to expressing her sadness and frustration with her marriage. Mayme, as played by Zuri Eshun, is a bit crass and sure of herself, and is a woman who knows what she wants, but who is vulnerable to the lure of a stable relationship. Finally, Ben McLaughlin's Mr. Marks has a shyness that matches Esther's, bound by the rules and traditions of his faith. His scenes with Ms. Hope are fun and playful but with an undercurrent of sexual tension and uncertainty.

BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL at Playhouse On ParkINTIMATE APPAREL is another bold, but smart choice for Playhouse on Park as it relies on a small, but talented cast and a simple, yet perfectly placed set for the characters to tell their story. Dawn Loveland Navarro's direction is strong, capturing the fluidity of the emotions in the script through each character and setting. Speaking of setting, Marcus Abbott's scenic design works quite well on the Playhouse stage, and by setting the stage in four quadrants (accented by unique flooring and furniture), he solidifies the image that these four locations (and the people in them) serve as the direction for Esther's life. Kate Bunce's costumes, especially the beautifully appointed corsets that Esther creates and one particular smoking jacket, punctuate the story and capture the period well.

INTIMATE APPAREL at Playhouse on Park is a powerful and beautiful tale told through a poetic script by a brilliant cast. It is the kind of story that runs the gamut of emotions but leaves you thinking and pondering your own ideas on loving and being loved. And though the intimate apparel of the title may be designed to be seen by only a select few, INTIMATE APPAREL, the play, is the kind of tale that should be seen by everyone.

INTIMATE APPAREL runs at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, CT through March 4th. For more information, call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or visit Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT 06119

Top Photo: Darlene Hope as Esther and Beethoven Oden as George (Photo courtesy Curt Henderson)

Mid Photo: Darlene Hope as Esther and Ben McLaughlin as Mr. Marks (Photo courtesy Curt Henderson)

Bottom Photo: Darlene Hope as Esther and Zuri Eshun as Mayme (Photo courtesy Curt Henderson)

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From This Author Joseph Harrison

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