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Theater Review (Westport, CT): ‘Intimate Apparel’ by Lynn Nottage at Westport Country Playhouse

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Nikki E. Walker in Intimate Apparel.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Nikki E. Walker in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” directed by Mary B. Robinson, at Westport Country Playhouse, now playing through November 1. (203) 227-4177. www.westportplayhouse.org Photo by Carol Rosegg

Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last as they close out their 2014 season with Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. This powerful and engaging play, which received the American Theatre Critics and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Play, is a more than a simple love story. It explores race and class divisions, highlighting the triumphs and tragedies of those who live on the fringes of society in 1905 as they create and maintain personal connections while carving their paths in the world. Featuring compelling characters that have been perfectly cast, an ingenious set design by Allen Moyer, and solid direction by Mary B. Robinson, this surprising show is a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther, a single, African American seamstress who has risen above her limited, uneducated background and created a career for herself by designing and sewing corsets for women. Catering to uptown ladies of leisure as well as to the downtown ladies of the evening, Esther has managed to save some money toward her ultimate goal of owning a salon. But at the age of 35, and still single, she is feeling lonely and afraid that she will never find someone to share her life with.

Esther’s hopes are raised when she receives a letter from George, a worker on the Panama Canal, and she begins a romantic correspondence with him with the help of her friends, which eventually leads to marriage. When George does not turn out to be the man she hoped for, Esther learns a great deal about friendship, love, sacrifice, self-worth, and the cost of compromising your dreams.

Allen Moyer’s set is an important element of the play, and a visual expression of the compartmentalization of Esther’s world. Each panel of the set belongs to a different part of Esther’s life: there’s the upper level panel of one of Esther’s uptown clients, Mrs. Van Buren; the small apartment of Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish merchant Esther buys her cloth from; Esther’s living space with her boarding house landlady Mrs. Dickson, and later with her husband George; and the boudoir of Mayme, Esther’s prostitute friend. Esther is the common thread weaving in and out of these separate compartments, and her relationships and connections with the inhabitants of these differing sections drive the play forward.

Mrs. Dickson, played by Aleta Mitchell, is not only the boarding house landlady, but also the house gossip and busybody. However, Ms. Mitchell imbues her character with such warmth and motherly affection that we know that her meddling comes purely from the heart, and her words of warning and wisdom serve as motherly advice from a kind and well-meaning matriarch.

Leighton Bryan is excellent as Mrs. Van Buren, the wealthy client stuck in a loveless marriage. She evokes our sympathy when she talks about her wayward husband and inability to have a child, and our laughter as she remarks on the irony of writing love letters to a stranger in Panama as she helps Esther with her correspondence. Heather Alicia Simms is also excellent as Esther’s best friend, Mayme. Although she is a talented pianist, Mayme, unlike Esther, did not rise above her impoverished upbringing and works as a prostitute. Ms. Simms earns our laughter with her bawdy sense of humor and our trust through her honest portrayal of love and affection for her friend.

The male characters are also character opposites. Tommy Shrider plays Mr. Marks with self-deprecating humility, and his affection for his favorite customer is filled with such tenderness and spirituality that it is difficult not to yearn for their impossible relationship to blossom. He is the man you want to win Esther’s heart. Isaiah Johnson plays George, the canal worker who woos Esther with words, and whose earthy sexuality and male-chauvinistic need to dominate becomes his undoing.

The star of the show of course is the central character, Esther, movingly portrayed by Nikki E. Walker. Despite her illiteracy, Esther is the kind of character that audiences can love: she is loyal, humble, frugal, religious, and ambitious. She works hard at her trade to achieve her dreams. Honest to a fault, her wry observations provide some of the play’s funniest and some of its most telling lines, pointing out societal boundaries that should not be crossed. Although her head is turned by romantic entanglements, she is very smart, and uses her brains to uncover the real nature of those around her. Ms. Walker adds a layer of grace to Esther’s subtle humor and honest emotions, making her more than just the main character; in rising above her circumstances, Esther becomes a heroine to be admired and emulated.

Some may see Esther’s fate as a tragedy, while others will see it as a triumph of steadfast self-awareness and adherence to one’s dreams. Either way, Intimate Apparel is a triumph for Westport Country Playhouse. This show runs through November 1. Visit Westport Country Playhouse for tickets.

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About CindyC

Cindy is a Connecticut writer and member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. She has had many changes in her life, but one thing has always remained the same: her life-long love of theater.