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BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL Feels Right At Home in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Post-Shutdown Season

Audiences have three more chances to see Palm Beach Dramworks' long-awaited production of Lynn Nottage's theatrical masterpiece.

BWW Review: INTIMATE APPAREL Feels Right At Home in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Post-Shutdown Season

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted the way people live, work, and interact with one another. However, even as masks and social distancing slowly fade away, one of the greatest challenges we face as humans is meeting our needs for love and intimacy. Our desire to display our most vulnerable selves has caused us to resort to virtual connections. When we make "Friends" on Facebook, we often forget about how some of the people we share our deepest thoughts with are nothing more than facades fabricated to showcase our best (and often most superficial) qualities. This collective codependency on social media and online dating is precisely why Palm Beach Dramaworks' production of Intimate Apparel, which was originally scheduled to open in Spring 2020, seems to be a fitting choice for its current post-lockdown season.

Written by Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel premiered in 2003 at Center Stage in Baltimore. The play soon moved to an Off-Broadway production with Roundabout Theatre Company, where it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play and a Drama Desk Award for Viola Davis, who played the leading role of Esther. Recently, Intimate Apparel was adapted into an opera with a libretto by Nottage and music by Ricky Ian Gordon.

Set in 1905 New York City, Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther Mills (Rita Cole), a seamstress who creates lingerie for clients from all walks of life. While the women in her racially segregated boardinghouse continue to get married, Esther remains a single woman. She insists on finding the right man and saving her money to start a beauty parlor where Black women can be pampered. When Esther starts corresponding with George Armstrong (Jovon Jacobs), a man from Barbados working on the Panama Canal, she falls in love with the man she envisions in the letters she reads. After Esther and George get married, the two slowly start to see their true colors.

Throughout the play, the audience can observe Esther's relationships with people from various social and ethnic backgrounds. Esther's gossipy landlady, Mrs. Dixon (Gabrielle Lee), serves as a stern mother figure. Given the nature of her work, Esther develops close friendships with Mayme (Krystal Mosley), a musically-inclined and amoral Black sex worker; Mrs. Van Buren (Gracie Winchester) a wealthy and sexually-frustrated Southern Belle turned socialite living on the Upper East Side; and Mr. Marks (Jordan Sobel), an Orthodox Jewish textile seller who generously offers Esther some of his finest imports of Japanese silk for her handiwork.

When Be Royd directs this production of Intimate Apparel, she provides ample moments for the show's cast to appear vulnerable onstage, even when staging silent interactions between performers. The most impressive piece of blocking for this production would have to be the final tableau of Act One, which depicts Esther and George's wedding ceremony.

Overall, the show's ensemble of six should be commended for their deft storytelling abilities and organic chemistry throughout the evening. Even during some of Nottage's poetic lines of dialogue, each actor speaks with crisp diction and nuanced delivery. Moreover, the show's cast knows how to communicate with each other during moments of complete silence on stage.

Cole's performance as Esther drives this production of Intimate Apparel. Her detailed object acting, particularly when operating her sewing machine, shows her ability to encapsulate Esther's entrepreneurial and creative spirit. The audience also gets to see Cole's range as a dramatic actress through Esther's character arc. While we see Cole play Esther with a friendly but professional demeanor at the beginning of Act One, her anxieties and disillusionment surrounding her character's new husband become apparent by the middle of Act Two. Her interactions with the rest of the cast are genuine-particularly with Sobel's Mr. Marks, Mosley's Mayme and Winchester's Mrs. Van Buren.

When Jacobs plays George, he masterfully shifts his performance from poetic and sensitive to raw and unbecoming. When we first see Jacobs on stage in Act One, he is reading one of his carefully-crafted letters. He puts on a gentlemanlike air, speaking with distinction and sophistication even with a Barbadian accent. His physicality shifts from straight and head-centered in his letters to animalistic and groin-centered by the time Esther and George are man and wife.

As Mrs. Dixon, Lee provides the right balance between an overbearing matron and church gossip. While the majority of her performance in Act One feels somewhat stuffy and manufactured, she lowers her guard during Mrs. Dixon's monologue warning Esther about marrying George, rather than a true gentleman.

Mosley commands the stage with her physical comedy chops and soulful, resonant singing voice as Mayme. Whether she is strutting like a peacock or playing ragtime on her piano, Mosley's energy keeps audiences engaged. At the same time, Mosley's vulnerability shines through during moments of pathos. She carries the weight of her experience as a Black sex worker and a classically trained pianist playing "colored music."

As Mrs. Van Buren, Winchester maintains an air of aristocracy as she delivers her lines in a clear Atlanta dialect and carries herself like a "Fifth Avenue Bird." Her relationship with Cole's Esther is one that goes beyond transactional. As a result, Winchester's playful and candid chemistry with Cole is apparent, especially as the two collaborate on Esther's love letters to George.

The most naturalistic and subdued performance of the evening would have to come from Sobel. His portrayal of Mr. Marks is relaxed as if he were performing the role on film. Even while speaking in a Romanian Jewish accent, his vocal mannerisms do not appear exaggerated to the point of becoming caricaturish. Sobel's chemistry with Cole is apparent from his very first scene. Cole and Sobel communicate in a cordial and almost loving manner as they portray their characters, even during moments of complete silence.

Michael Amico's scenic design, which uses a palate of dark chestnuts and mahoganies, creates a unified aesthetic onstage while representing different locations. Amico places Esther's boardinghouse bed as the centerpiece of the show's set, suggesting that Esther touches the lives of the other characters in the play through her work as a seamstress. Kirk Bookman's lighting design compliments Amico's set. While most of his washes are white and sepia tone, Bookman uses a gobo effect to create the illusion of wooden panels that highlight the various scenic elements in Amico's design.

The level of gesamtkunstwerk seen in the show's scenic and lighting design also applies to Roger Arnold's sound design. Arnold underscores this production of Intimate Apparel with various pieces of ragtime piano music. Not only does the music fit the time period, but highlights some of the contributions of Black musicians and composers in New York during the early 20th century, such as Scott Joplin.

A play titled Intimate Apparel cannot be complete without a successful costume design. Brian O'Keefe's costumes easily transport audiences to 1905 New York. With financial support from Ruth and Ed Baum, O'Keefe was able to create masterpieces of silk, lace, and wool. Every boudoir corset is meticulously created, with taste and sex appeal in mind. However, the most impressive handmade piece in this show would have to be George's red smoking jacket made of Japanese silk, complete with gold trim. This silk jacket serves as an important element of the show's narrative since Esther creates said jacket as a wedding present for George.

While Palm Beach Dramaworks anticipated staging Intimate Apparel in 2020, numerous societal changes that came with the COVID-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter movement made this production feel right at home in 2022-especially with Royd's staging, a diverse ensemble of Equity actors, and hand-crafted costumes that take audiences back in time. With three performances remaining, you only have a limited time to be captivated by Nottage's theatrical masterpiece.

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