Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Esther Mills was born in the South in 1870. Her mother died when Esther was very young and her father was a mute former slave. At age nine Esther left home and worked her way up to New York City. There she was advised to learn to sew intimate apparel for ladies, as she would be well paid to keep their confidences. That Esther did, and the play opens with Esther at her sewing machine in the room she rents at Mrs. Dickson's boarding house. The biggest disappointment for Esther is that she has never been in love, or been with a man at alla 35-year-old virgin. The garments she sews to clothe acts of seduction for her clients have never played a role in her own life.
There is one man for whom Esther has great fondness, Mr. Marks the fabric seller. But Mr. Marks is a Jewish immigrant from Romania, always dressed in black and forbidden by orthodox Jewish law to touch a woman outside his family. And yet, Mr. Marks seems to return every bit of Esther's affection, and takes immense joy in obtaining bolts of beautiful fabrics for her to purchase for her clients, pointing out their textures with a clearly sensual appreciation. But no matter, they are worlds apart. What does change Esther's prospects is a correspondent from out of the blue. George Armstrong is a West Indian on the work crew digging the Panama Canal who hears about Esther from a church contact. They exchange letters, though, as Esther can neither read nor write, her friends read George's letters to her and write her responses to him. Their correspondence becomes increasingly personal, sharing their hopes and values, until the day George sends a letter proposing marriage to Esther, sight unseen. Esther, who had given up the dream of a husband, is elated, but she soon learns that marriage is not the dream she had imagined, while George finds that America is not the land of opportunity it claims to be.
The three other women in the play serve as examples of different approaches to men. Mrs. Dickson, Esther's busybody widowed landlady, wed a much older manin spite of his opium addictionas an act of "marrying up," knowing she would inherit a boarding house to provide a comfortable income. Mayme, a composer of blues and a prostitute, uses her sexuality to provide for herself but spurns intimate bonds with a man. Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy white woman and one of Esther's best customers, married for propriety, to satisfy society's expectations, but is lonely and unfulfilled. Esther is cast in contrast to all three, as a virtuous woman with the patience to wait for love that is true, or none at all.
Unlike most Ten Thousand Things productions I have seen, Intimate Apparel has a small cast, and there is no need for actors to play multiple roles. That allows each actor to dig more deeply into the character, creating full bodied performances that break the skin and enter the bloodstream. The six excellent actors in this cast each fully inhabit their characters to reveal people with authentic language, behavior, and emotions. Aimee K. Bryant is phenomenal as Esther, bestowing her with a natural wisdom and serenity that goes off kilter when George enters her life. Her kindness and hopefulness remain constant, even in the worst of times. And even when she is hurt to the bone, Bryant always conveys Esther's inner strength. Darius Dotch is completely persuasive as George, both when he is the earnest soul-seeking gentility and when he reveals the abusive opportunist within. Even when we have seen him as a heel, he makes such a smooth argument to Esther that we almost are willing to believe in the gentleman we first met.
Dame-Jasmine Hughes is wonderfully earthy as Mayme, given up on higher goals and making a virtue of pleasure and sheer survival. As Mrs. Dickson, George Keller throws her modest affluence and life experience around as if she were to the manor born, freely assaulting Esther with unsolicited advice. In Karen Wiese-Thompson's hands, Mrs. Van Buren is a more comic character than I recall from the 2005 Guthrie production (and why not? Wiese-Thompson is a sublimely funny actor), which makes the revelation of how much she has missed in life all the more heartbreaking. Rounding out the cast, Kris Nelson as Mr. Marks is completely lovable, a man of unquestionable virtue who is ruled by the traditions stuffed in his pockets when he crossed the ocean from his old life. He handles his beloved fabrics with immense pride, as if merely obtaining these bolts is as an act of creation. His Eastern European Jewish accent is a tad forced, though, as we only see and hear him interacting with Esther, that forced quality might stem from his eagerness to please her.
Austene Van directs with a light touch, taking Esther and the other characters seriously but not creating an atmosphere of despair or regret. She creates a feeling that everyone is working on making their life work, and even the setbacks are part of that journey. She has trimmed about twenty minutes from the original play in keeping with Ten Thousand Things' two hour performance time (established to conform to requirements of their performances at prisons, work houses, homeless shelters, community centers, and other settings that typically have no access to theater). Yet there is not a speck of feeling that anything is missing, or that we ought to know more than we do about any of the characters.
The set is extremely spare, again keeping with Ten Thousand Things' need for portability, but a few furnishings establish each setting. Trevor Bowen's costumes, on the other hand, are more lavish, true to the 1905 time frame and representing the social status and taste of each character. Mrs. Dickson's dress of different patterned fabric pieced together is especially delightful, elegance created out of the remnants of a piece-meal life. Annie Enneking provides sound cues between scenes and musical backgrounds during some of the scenes to good effect, with the exception of the samba-like melodies played each time George is reading one of his letters from Panama. In those cases, the music interferes with Dotch's voice and distracts from the tone of his missives. After all, he is not relishing the tropical sensuality of the Caribbean, but seeking a stable and mature love, at least as far as his letters tell us.
And that is my only quibble with this production, which is overall a lovely work of stagecraft on the part of director, actors and designers. Lynn Nottage wrote the play before her two Pulitzer Prize winning works, Ruined and Sweat. While she has since ascended to the ranks of our major working playwrights, Intimate Apparel is not a case of a master's less substantial early work. Its narrative is at times predictable, but told so well that it holds us in its grip throughout. It touches upon a range of issuesthe pain of an unemployed black man, the slow process of easing up immigrant traditions, the unwavering boundaries drawn between the races and social class, and ways in which women could seek empowerment in 1905.
Intimate Apparel is highly recommended: a play with heart and substance, acted by a first rank company in a production that shows both affection and respect for the play and the characters who live within it.
Intimate Apparel;, through May 21, 2017, at the Minnesota Opera Center, 620 N. 1st Street, Minneapolis, MN and May 26 - June 4, 2017, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can, $10.00 and up, for those under 30. Free tickets for all remaining Community Performances are sold out. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Writer: Lynn Nottage; Director: Austene Van; Music and Sound: Annie Enneking; Sound and Music Consultant: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Trevor Bowen Sets: Stephen Mohring; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: H. Adam Harris; Production Intern: Celeste Cahn.
Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (Esther Mills), Darius Dotch (George Armstrong) Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Mayme), George Keller (Mrs. Dickson), Kris Nelson (Mr. Marks), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Mrs. Van Buren),