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Intimate Apparel
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
January 26, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

A corset is an interesting garment. Its function is to be shaping, constraining, but it can also be seen as a thing of beauty and a vessel for self-expression. In Lynn Nottage’s insightful Intimate Apparel,  the playwright explores the ideas of social restriction as well as the desire for self-expression in early 1900’s New York City. Currently on stage at New Jewish Theatre, this play is a well-cast, fascinating exploration.

The play’s central figure is Esther (Jacqueline Thompson), a 35-year-old single African-American woman who lives in a boarding house run by the gossipy but well-meaning Mrs. Dickson (Linda Kennedy) and makes a living sewing “intimate garments” for ladies. Esther can’t read or write, but she is a gifted seamstress with dreams of opening a beauty parlor someday, and who stashes away her earnings in a quilt that she has made. The play is structured in segments that are mostly named after articles of clothing that Esther makes or fabrics that she uses. She purchases the fabrics from Mr. Marks (Jim Butz), a kind Jewish shopkeeper with whom she shares a friendship that, in another time, might blossom into something more. Her main clients that we see are Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Layton), a rich white society woman who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who is increasingly disappointed in her inability to produce children; and her longtime friend Mayme (Andrea Purnell), who works as a prostitute in a nearby saloon and who serves as a contrast to “good girl” Esther, who has played by the rules in hopes of achieving her dream of a good life. There’s also George (Chauncy Thomas), a laborer from Barbados who works on the construction of the Panama Canal, with whom Esther exchanges letters–with the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, who write them for her–with the increasing promise of marriage. But what happens when George arrives in New York? Will he be the same kind, charming man of his letters or will he be something different? And what of Esther’s dreams, and those of her friends and those around her?

This is an extremely well-structured play with richly developed characters, incisively examining the strict social confines of the society it depicts, and also casting some light on the expectations of women in society even today. Racial, class, and gender differences and expectations are all explored, as well as the ideas of dreams vs. reality and personal agency vs. social pressure. The cast is uniformly strong, led by Thompson in a sensitive, courageous portrayal of the hopeful but conflicted Esther. Her scenes with Butz as the kind Mr. Marks are a highlight, as are her scenes with Purnell’s vivacious but somewhat self-deluded Mayme. There are also strong performances from Kennedy as the nosy but caring Mrs. Dickson, Layton as the refined, confined and curious Mrs. Van Buren, and Thomas in an impressive portrayal of two versions of George–the idealized form in the letters, and the much more complex George of reality.  It’s an extremely cohesive ensemble with no weak links, and all the performers display excellent presence and chemistry in their scenes together.

As is usual for NJT, the technical aspects of this production are truly excellent. The troupe’s black box theatre has been arranged in a more traditional proscenium set-up reflecting its early 20th Century setting, and Peter and Margery Spack’s set is impeccably detailed and period accurate. It’s like being transported to a different time and place, and the well demarcated performance areas also reflect the show’s theme of social restrictions and “boxes” into which its characters are expected to fit, although the staging allows the performers to wander into the other areas of the set as they explore and sometimes test the boundaries into which they are confined. There’s also excellent, meticulously accurate costume design by Michele Friedman Siler and intense, atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie. This is a play set in very specific time and place, well-represented here and augmented by Amanda Werre’s sound design and era-specific ragtime music.

Intimate Apparel is a play that veers from optimistic to heartbreaking to stubbornly hopeful, and all those aspects are well-portrayed in NJT’s first-rate production. As I’ve come to expect from this ambitious company, excellence is on display here. It’s a journey to the past richly portrayed but also an exploration of some issues that are still very much in the present. It’s an exquisitely constructed theatrical experience.

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Intimate Apparel  at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 12, 2017.

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