Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Marinda Anderson and Avery Glymph; photo: Andrew Boyce
". . .pretty to look at. . .every Sunday."
Marinda Anderson and Chantal Jean-Pierre; photo: Andrew Boyce
Is there anything as enthralling as a problem play - one that presents real problems to its principal character, then leads her through them to enlightenment? Imagine writing one where all problems are dealt with by the end of the first act, then. Seeing a play where the happy ending is reached before the intermision. It had happened before; remember Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" with its happy ending in the middle? Everybody gets what they want. Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for - you just might get it. And don't leave Dorset Theatre Festival's season opener, "Intimate Apparel" before the end of the second act. You will miss the play.
Playwright Lynn Nottage has brought us into a woman's world in New York City in 1905. The two men in the play, polar opposites, are what the main character, Esther, a seamstress and designer, knows about men. One is forbidden fruit and the other is that elusive plum at the top of the tree. It takes her more than a year to realize which is which and how love works in a lifetime of longing. Along the way she has the guidance of an unhappily married woman, a prostitute, a widow and all of the other customers whose lives are touched by Esther and the unmentionables she sews for them.
So what, you may ask, is the problem in this play? Is it love affairs or marriage? Is it the stultification of a soul through work? Is it women's issues? Is it racial, for Esther is a black woman of 35, single and plain and unable to give herself to the fun of life rather than the work of it? It is really none of these things, although all of these items factor into the story. The real problem that the play offers is one of moral issues. How does one love and find fulfillment in a world that suppresses the individual? This is the issue, clouded by realities, that is faced by the main character.
Esther is a non-judgemental woman, a woman out of her own time. She works for a prostitute who clearly loves what she does even though she has the talent to be something better. Esther accepts her even through personally calamitous times. Esther works for a society woman who is in deepest personal disguise and through almost all of it she accepts the idea that wealth provides certain privileges, especially if you're white. Esther watches as all of the other women in her boarding house marry and move on into that one area of life that has avoided her. Esther is always on the sidelines with the women who surround her, whose lives touch hers but leave no mark.
When she falls in deepest "like" and marries a stranger everything changes. She learns what the touch of another human being can mean, what devotion and trust can do, what loving costs. Her dreams of a future may be sacrificed but the outcome is worth every penny lost. The simple story told in act one becomes a deep and mysterious journey for an independent woman of color in a time period when no woman was privileged enough to be herself for long. Lynn Nottage has constructed a veritable thing of beauty in the body of a woman for whom beauty is to be created and not lived.
Marinda Anderson plays Esther with a simplicity that almost makes her seem real and not acted. As we believed in Lucy Riccardo when Lucille Ball played her, so do we believe in Anderson's Esther. This is an actress totally new to me and she will be hard to separate from Esther in the future. I bought her frustrations with the same zeal I would buy the handsome silk smoking jacket she creates. I found her growth from simplicity to complexity to be actual not acted. I know she's an actress and so in retrospect I admire her complex talent which allows her to to make this same journey day after day, performance after performance. Anderson brings clarity to the issues by only being honest about them and how they affect her character. Now and again I pray for regional TONY Awards so that an actress of this calibre could be honored properly for outstanding work; this is one of those time.
As the man she marries, George, Avery Glymph has a true challenge on his hands. We have to like him, mistrust him, loathe him and sympathize with him all at the same time. He has to present a character each night, who is a true catalyst to the growth of Esther and who is, catalytically, untrustworthy, liable to boil over and to ruin whatever experiment he is involved in. Glymph manages all of this nicely, even if his Barbados accent comes and goes and its inconsistency becomes a glimpse into the soul of a soulless man.
Mrs. Van Buren is played with nuance and charm by Janie Brookshire. Both she and Chantal Jean-Pierre as Mayme, the prostitute whose beauty and talent are explored nicely by the actress, play the bookends to Esther's growth and understanding. Both women present cleanly defined characters whose presence in the heroine's life are as necessary as fresh water and clean towels.
Elain Graham is Mrs. Dickson whose honest and reputable boarding house takes on the sense of a whorehouse as she struts through the lives of her "girls" who marry and move on. Graham has a style of performance that allows for some exaggeration and it is that style that moves her work into the odd realm of caricature, something no one else manages in this production.
Charles Socarides plays Mr. Marks, an orthodox Jew who supplies exotic material to Esther for the garments she sews. His gentle demeanor and his gentlemanly behavior provide an image of man for Esther that she cannot find elsewhere. Socarides performance is as sweetly nuanced as that of his leading lady and their scenes together are more moving and emotionally draining as anything else in this play.
On a brilliant set designed by Andrew Boyce representing five, or perhaps six, bedrooms in excellent period costumes created by Sydney Maresca under perfect lighting by Michael Giannitti director Giovanna Sardelli has woven a garment that adorns the author's ideas and words. Sardelli and Anderson together present Esther's story in way that puts to shame any and all "realism" shows for the quality of actually witnessing life is what makes the difference here. We witness Esther's life. We are - finally - the fly on the wall who comprehends human conflicts. That's a fine achievement for any director, any actress.
Vermont has the courage to present this story in a rural setting among people whose lives can have nothing in common with the lives of these city people. Audiences everywhere need to see a play like this performed in this manner. It is a unique opportunity. Dorset Playhouse is 6 miles west of Manchester Center, a place my neighbors drive to for shopping - about one hour and forty minutes away. Go buy a bargain and stay around for revelations. You won't regret it.
Intimate Apparel plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT through July 5. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.