Theatre review: Intimate Apparel is a timeless and heart-felt tribute

That the Arts Club Theatre Company has chosen to present Lynn Nottage’s historical play Intimate Apparel during Black History Month is no doubt by design, but that it also premiered a day after Valentine’s Day seems equally as fitting.

Set during the early 1900s in New York, 35-year-old Esther has been supporting her dream of opening a beauty parlor by sewing undergarments for women at every rung of the socio-economic ladder.  After receiving a letter from a suitor laboring on the Panama Canal, the illiterate Esther enlists the help of two of her clients, a lonely socialist and a prostitute, to begin her romantic correspondence.

Marci T House brings such strength and dignity to her Esther that we can’t help but be pulled into her world and even though we suspect that her paper relationship is destined for failure, her belief that perhaps things will work out is enough for us to hold onto that truth as well.  As George, Daren Herbert gives such a layered performance that we are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by him and, like Esther, we are willing to believe everything he tells us.

As skillful as the fabrics that at times take center stage, playwright Nottage weaves rich relationships through her story and director John Cooper pulls some equally rich performances from his supporting actors.  Lesley Ewen brings a wonderful pragmatism to the boarding house busy-body Mrs Dickson and Marsha Regis gives life to prostitute Mayme without any hint of caricature.  Anna Cummer, who perhaps has the toughest job in a role that reaches well beyond Esther’s place, is genuinely tragic.

But it is the relationship between Esther and Mr Marks, the fabric store owner that has resonates the loudest.  There is such an exquisitely soulful connection between House’s Esther and Jonathon Young’s Mr Marks that in the show’s penultimate scene I was reduced to tears.

Jonathon Young and Marci T. House in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Intimate Apparel. Photo by David Cooper.
Jonathon Young and Marci T. House in the Arts Club production of Intimate Apparel. Photo by David Cooper.

As much a part of her world as the people that inhabit Esther’s life, are Alison Green’s beautifully realized costumes.  As a metaphor for the hidden desires and motivations of Nottages’s characters, her ornately decorated corsets pop against the drab of everyday dress and Pam Johnson’s set.

Johnson’s set fills the Granville Island Stage to its fullest and although at times it felt claustrophobic, it effectively captured the time period with such variety that includes the richness of Mrs VanBuren’s boudoir, Mayme’s tenement and Mr Marks’ filled-to-the-rafters fabric shop.  Front and centre throughout is Esther’s sewing machine and her bed filled with secrets as a constant reminder of where her dreams began.

Lighting designer Itai Erdal gives everything a suitably mellow low-light wash and Doug Balfour serves up an authentic sound with period appropriate music.

That Nottage’s play was inspired by her own grandmother’s life adds an additional air of authenticity to the story even though this is an imagined version of the details.  As gorgeous as the fabrics Esther uses in her creations, Intimate Apparel is a timeless and heart-felt tribute to a grandmother.

4 1/2 of 5 Stars Intimate Apparel

By Lynn Nottage.  Directed by John Cooper.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Granville Island Stage through March 10, 2012. Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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