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‘Intimate Apparel’: A Critical Review

Oct 7, 2017

  • Overall: 90%

The Facts

Play: “Intimate Apparel”

Author: Lynn Nottage

Director: Fabio Polanco

Theatre: Wright-Curtis Theatre

Theatre Company: The School of Theatre and Dance

Performance Dates: Oct. 6—Oct. 15, 2017

Run Time:  2.5 hours

Words by Ashlynn Thompson

E sther is an aging African-American spinster who sews ladies’ undergarments, or “intimate apparel,” in the early 1900s. With the help of her friends, she corresponds with a black laborer in Panama to get her through long days. In her desperation for love, she agrees to marry this man she has never met, and when they wed, their marriage takes a turn for the worst. Her strength of character, friendships and need for love are tested.

Directorial Concept

The story overshadows the concept director Fabio Polanco is trying to make. In truth, it is difficult to identify a definite concept for this production. It seems as if Polanco wants to let the story speak for itself, but his execution and elements of production are inconsistent, such as his overcrowded set design and minimal lighting and sound. Little about the directing genuinely added to the production; it is really the actors that give this show its magic.

  • Directorial concept: 50%

Elements of Production

For a play whose central character works day in and day out sewing intimate apparel for others, the costume design is the most crucial element of the production. And it does not disappoint. Hats off to Desiree Anderson, who emulates the period dress to perfection. Channeling an overall conservative and uniform time in fashion, Anderson manages to express each character through their clothing, including the female characters’ innermost desires with the color and embellishment of their corsets. One stand-out garment is Esther’s wedding dress, which has an old-fashioned appeal with its high neck and puffed sleeves, as well as a modern flare with its sparkle under stage lights. The light and sound design are minimal. This almost makes up for the poor set design, which physically and figuratively crowds the actors. While the set pieces look authentic and make the viewer feel as if they are in the early 1900s, the four bulky sets of furniture, like the fabric shop and three bedrooms, overwhelm the stage and make it difficult for actors to move. Perhaps the story and actors would benefit more from smaller set pieces or a bigger stage.

  • Elements of Production: 80%

The Acting

With a small six-member cast, three actors are complete perfection: Montria Walker, who plays Esther’s best friend and lady of the night Mayme; Adam Kirk, who portrays Ester’s husband George; and especially Chantrell Lewis, who astounds as Esther. Lewis builds in her passion and power, especially in the second act, as her character begins to get sick of being stepped on and disregarded by George in her quest for love. Desperation for love and a feeling of being wanted drives many of the characters in this story and makes for some of the best scenes. In one extraordinary scene, when Esther struggles to get George to love her like a husband should and an argument erupts, the chemistry between Lewis and Kirk was truly electric. In the end, her struggle is in vain as he leaves her feeling unwanted, unloved and ugly. Friendship is also a key theme in this story. It is how Esther is able to write to George in Panama, even though she is illiterate, and get through the hell that is her marriage and stay strong when she loses everything. When Esther visits Mayme to give her a blue, silk corset, the ensuing scene between Lewis and Walker is that natural way in which best friends talk when no one else is around, reminiscent of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help.” Lewis truly gives a performance with incredible nuance that actually moved many audience members to laughter, anger and tears, myself included.

  • The Acting: 90%

Why This is Worth Seeing

I don’t say this often, but what an incredible production. Flawlessly written by Lynn Nottage, the play is centered on the human desire to be loved and wanted. The audience fervently travels with Esther through her problematic love affairs, devoted friendships and dreams that never come to fruition. At its core, this play celebrates the average person and transcends its time period, as it addresses what we all go through, what we all want and what we all need.

Final Thoughts

It is so refreshing and exciting to see a play from the perspective of those whose stories aren’t told. In this case, it is the story of a woman in 1905 who happens to be African-American. This production is beautiful because it is a very human story. Esther struggles with being a 25-year-old unmarried woman who works hard constantly, which does not completely fulfill her. It cannot be stressed enough that this is not just a story for black people, but a story for all, as every individual can relate to feeling underappreciated and desperate for love.

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