Am I worthy of love? Who will love me? Will that ever happen for me?
These are some of the questions that the heroine of Intimate Apparel struggles with and they are very human questions.
Set in Lower Manhattan in 1905, the play opens to Ester (Karen Robinson) sewing quietly while a party goes on below. Mrs. Dickson (Kim Roberts) enters, trying to pull Ester out of her solitude and join the party. It is revealed that Ester is wondering if she will ever find love, being a thirty five year old, unmarried coloured woman. But Ester receives a letter, from a gentleman working in Panama, who is wanting to correspond with her and this plants the idea of romantic love in Ester’s mind.
As the story unfolds we see Ester in her job, making intimate apparel for various clients. There is Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Orton) a lonely white woman in her marriage, who can’t seem to bear a child for her husband. She tries to cover up her insecurity with silks and satin sewn by Ester. It is Mrs. Van Buren who winds up writing letters to Ester’s suitor, as Ester can’t read or write.
Ester also visits Mayme (Abena Malika), who is a prostitute by day and night, but has her heart in music and singing. She buys lingerie from Ester to feel luxurious when her job leaves her feeling less so.
Ester buys her fabric from the local Jewish merchant Mr. Marks (Graham Percy) and they both share a love for every aspect of the fabric that gets made into beautiful apparel.
The audience gets to see Ester fully, draped in all her insecurities. She doesn’t feel that she is a pretty thing to look at, or that her simple life is a ‘life worthy of words’ as she puts it. But George (Andre Sills), her suitor, has words of romance and charm that jump off the page and Ester finds herself taken by his script. His letter are kept tied together in silk ribbon and she is ecstatic and agrees when George asks her to marry him. But George isn’t what he seemed to be on paper. He can’t find work and takes money from her dreams. He increasingly is cold towards her and doesn’t come home for long periods of time. She misses the warmth that were in his letters. As the narrative unfurls and lies are revealed, the audience is pulled through Ester’s disappointment and heartbreak right with her.
Playwright Lynn Nottage weaves her words beautifully and all of the characters of the play are well developed and complex. The play is backed by shining performances from the cast. Robinson portrays Ester’s simple manner with subtlety, filling out her character nicely. Orton is a complex blend of rich and alone. Roberts is the nosey and patronizing Mrs. Dickson to a tee. Sills manages occupy the competing contrasts within his character, sweet and charming in the beginning, then coarse and dark in the end. The turn in his character is subtle and he does an outstanding job. The highest praise has to go to Percy, who manages in every scene to be adorable, humble, earnest, kind and absolutely brimming with heart, all the while staying within the character of the Jewish merchant who just wants to see Ester smile. His accept is accurate and he is a beacon of joy in this play.
Terry Gunvordahl’s set is something to behold. The whole thing seems to be on slope and every character is in a room that is designed for their character traits. Deitra Kalyn’s costume design does not disappoint either, as the theme of fabric is reflected in the costuming. The play features sound design and composition from Tim Williams, whose music threads its way through the play adding another layer to the narrative.
Intimate Apparel is play that tells the story of a woman who struggles with the questions that everyone does, at some point in their lives.
All the threads get woven together into a compelling, engaging story that is delivered, wrapped in delicate silk.
Intimate Apparel runs at Alberta Theatre Projects until October 27th. Ticket and more information available online.
(Five stars out of five)