Regional Reviews: San Francisco
TheatreWorks Production of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel is Note Perfect
Intimate Apparel tells the story of African American spinster Esther Mills (Laiona Michelle) who is a transplanted country girl in New York in 1905. She creates beautiful wedding dresses for rich ladies and designs elaborate silk corset covered with beads for two of her best costumes Mrs. Van Buren (Lisa Anne Morrison), a wealthy lonely white lady, and Mayme (Tracey Conyer Lee), a local young prostitute. Esther has no social life as she is bound to her sewing machine. She is still a virgin and appears doomed to be an unattached woman for the rest of her life. Esther is a plain churchgoing lady wearing unadorned dresses and no make-up. Although she can not read, she has extensive knowledge of fabric, patterns and style.
Romance enters Esther's life when she receives a letter from Caribbean bachelor George (Bryan Hicks) who is working on the construction of the Panama Canal. The young man is hungry for female companionship and he has heard Esther is an upright Christian woman. Since Esther is illiterate, she has the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren responds to the gentleman. Letters go back and forth and a romance blossoms. The two finally meet in New York with the purpose of marrying. Both find that big mistakes have been made since George becomes a gambler and a womanizer, bedding Mayme without Esther's knowledge.
Intimate Apparel has an interesting subplot involving Orthodox Jewish bachelor Mr. Marx (Jackson Davis) and his encounters with Esther. He sells fabric wholesale to Esther and there is a little romantic prospective in their meetings. However, he is strict Orthodox Jew who has an arranged fiancé still in Romania waiting to come to the States, and his strict religion prevents him from touching a person of the opposite sex; he sadly realizes nothing will ever become of their meetings. The conversations between these two are achingly beautiful.
Laiona Michelle gives an exquisite performance as Esther as she balances a heartbreaking desire with a sense of self respect. Bryan Hicks is perfect with his musical West India accent as the robust Caribbean worker. He maintains his forcefulness even when his salty qualities come out. Tracey Conyer Lee is sexy and compelling as the young prostitute Mayme. Robin Braxton is excellent as Esther's rooming house landlady, a prying mother hen trying to find a husband for the seamstress. Jackson Davis fills out the small cast as Mr. Marks. He gives a beautiful performance of a very shy man who needs love in his life.
Anthony J. Haney has directed this two-hour play with a sensitivity that one seldom sees in today's theatre. The change of scenes is smooth. Eric Sinkkonen has devised an attractive set of panels that slide across the stage to reveal the apartment furnishing of a brothel, boudoirs, and the barren workroom of Esther. There is a large blown-up vintage photograph of workers on the canal whenever George comes stage forward to recite his letters to Esther in the first act. Allison Connor has devised great period outfits including the colorful corsets. There is also a lovely ragtime score performed by William Liberatore on record. It is interesting to note that these ragtime melodies were composed by women during the early 20th century.
Intimate Apparel continues through September 18 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
The next production will be the world premiere of Tanya Shaffer's Baby Taj: From India with Love, set to open on September 28th at he Mountain View Center