BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL at TAM
The circumstances have changed since the era portrayed in Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel." But the struggles that the characters face remain all too recognizable.
The Theater at Monmouth has mounted a thoroughly engrossing production of the 2003 play about people seeking love and a sense of self-worth in a world that has thrown up all kinds of barriers to their realizing their dreams.
Esther, a 35-year-old African American woman, the daughter of a former slave, has achieved a measure of success in 1905 New York by sewing elegant undergarments for appreciative women from both privileged and less reputable quarters. She's focused on saving up to open her own beauty business but also would like to have some romance in her life. To the latter end, the illiterate Esther enlists her wealthy white customer Mrs. Van Buren to write letters for her in response to those she has been receiving from a man from Barbados named George who is working on the Panama Canal.
Though in understandable denial about it, Esther has also developed a relationship with the attentive Mr. Marks, a Jewish immigrant who sells her fabric. The impossibility of that relationship moving beyond mutual admiration is agonizingly made certain by the laws and values of early 20th-century America.
That disappointment and what happens when George shows up in New York form the basis of a woeful but ultimately redeeming story, offering a loving look at people from American history who are well worth "the task of remembering," as director Josiah Davis puts it in his notes.
Amber Baldwin personifies Esther as a shy but determined women whose willingness to take a chance on a man she doesn't really know marks her passage toward a hard-won maturity. Baldwin is a quietly absorbing presence as her character, with an innocent's wonder, reacts to those around her. Inspired by a photo of the author's great-grandmother, Nottage provides the story and Baldwin brings it to life.
Lawrence James plays the duplicitous George as a beguiling menace to the women he encounters. James affects a heavy Caribbean accent to further the sense of a cultural dislocation for George as he takes on New York after suffering hellish working conditions in building the Canal.
Kara Green, as Mayme, a prostitute who's a customer and friend to Esther, adds ebullience and a hint of poignancy as a lady of the evening not fully resigned to her status. Her playful, girlish conversations with Esther constitute one of the simplest of the several intimacies within the play.
Caitlin Duffy is touching as the slinky socialite Mrs. Van Buren, a beauty who sadly wants to break out of her gilded cage. Tessa Martin gives a slow reveal to the depths within her worldly-wise landlady Mrs. Dickson.
Robert Najarian is moving as the dignified but enchanted Mr. Marks, who shares Esther's appreciation for the basic materials that are required for true intimacy, even if it can only last for a moment or two.
The costumes by Michelle Handley are period-specific and add to the boudoir motif of the sets by Meg Anderson. It was a surprise that he recorded music occasionally diverged from the ragtime called for in the text of the play.
Because of discrimination, prejudice and exploitation, life could be hard for many good people in the period setting of this play. Nottage asserts that most, nonetheless, showed remarkable character and courage. This production of her "Intimate Apparel" remembers them well.
Theater at Monmouth, ME.
reviewed July 31
continues through August 19, 2019
photo of Kara Green (left) and Amber Baldwin by Aaron Flacke