It's a pleasure to watch a wise woman play the fool, especially when she can later stand calmly over the ruins of those who "did her dirt."
Thanks to Linda Kennedy's steely portrayal as Esther Mills, we are dazzled by silks and secrets in Lynn Nottage's penetrating script. But we are drawn-in to find heartbreaking humiliation at its core. Then the real excitement begins.
We first imagine that Ms. Kennedy's Esther is living vicariously through clients who buy her sensational bustiers (clients ranging from the gutter of society to the very penthouse) in New York of 1905. In the course of nearly three hours, we find they depend on her for much more than she requires of them.
If the plot reminds you of Cyrano de Bergerac with its ghost-written love notes, the constant parrying of reason and romance also suggest the work of Jane Austen. Like any good comedy, nearly every character seems to be cock-sure they have sole possession of Absolute Truth. But comedy ends (in marriage, of course) just as people begin taking Esther for a complete fool. And like many a good tragedy, only the Fool can weather the coming storm.
Highlights of the evening include Erin Kelley's strut as a gimlet-eyed, wealthy southern belle, in a comic and touching portrayal, putting a giddy face on marital disappointment. I might admiringly describe her as Billie Burke in a stork costume. Alan Knoll is wonderfully constrained and conflicted as an unattainable mate.
As the young prostitute, Thyais Walsh provoked giggles in the audience as we watched anxiously for a blast of cleavage to compromise the banks of her unmentionables opening night, as Ms. Walsh showed her mastery of bawdy humor. Her frills and laces ultimately weathered the constant battering by a bosomy nor'easter. (The nor'wester was nothing to sneeze at, either.) However, Ms. Walsh's own harrowing performance near the end, and the high quality of construction, keep Intimate Apparel running at an admirable standard.
Thanks (partly) to the adept lighting of Kathy Perkins, Erik Kilpatrick glows as Esther's romantic pen-pal from the Panama Canal. Much later, stashing away heaps of money on stage, his George Armstrong is appallingly single-minded and just as foolish as Esther's customers, consumed by their own hollow pursuits.
Much of the action revolves around our fascination with the "unattainable heart." Ms. Kennedy and director Ron Himes draw us in delicately, making us want to peek around the corners of Esther's wary heart throughout the show. This cat-and-mouse game is a lot of fun, but turns to drama when Esther's love is betrayed. There is a strange feeling of dawdling in the text as Ms. Nottage shifts gears, out of comedy, but it is survivable. My only criticism of the sterling Ms. Kennedy is her occasional awkwardness with a dress form, which belies Esther's years of sewing experience.
A brief word about pacing: Director Himes strikes a reasonable balance between the clockwork precision of storytelling and what becomes the predictable glory of an actor's "moment" posing on stage in several scenes. But on opening night, the actress playing Esther's landlady might have shaved a tiny bit off the 2:45 running time if she'd had more confidence in her lines. Otherwise, Starletta DuPois plays a heartwarming maternal figure. I especially enjoyed her speech convincing Esther to come down to a wedding party in her rooming house.
Felix Cochren's set has a great Elizabethan quality to it, with its multiple playing areas. He employs a fantastically subtle painting technique that puts a few swirling ladies on the walls of fancy bedrooms, in swooping curls, and another elaborate paint job that suggests a busy street in New York's garment district, for Mr. Knoll's tender Hassidic tailor. It's one of the best sets I've seen in St. Louis since the Repertory Theatre's gaudy casino in The Gamester in 2003 by John Ezell.
Playwright Nottage allows her main character to peer into very different worlds, illumined for us by the glow of lustrous silks. In the final moments, Esther is posed as a kind of explorer at her sewing machine: gazing distantly at human folly through a lens of her own devising, all the while, sublimely unruffled.
Intimate Apparel continues at the Grandel Theatre through June 25, 2005. Contact the Black Repertory Company at (314) 534-3810. The very fine costumes are by Reggie Ray. The Grandel is located a block south of Powell Symphony Hall, 3610 Grandel Square, a block north of the Fox Theatre.