Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lyric Stage Company of Boston Presents "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage - Not A Stitch Out of Place!

It is not often that I perceive a play as near perfect, but that was my experience as I sat mesmerized by the current Lyric Stage Company of Boston  production of "Intimate Apparel" that has been stitched together by the gifted Director, Summer Williams and a cast of six actors of consummate professionalism. Playwright Lynn Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize for her play, "Ruined,"  She remains at the top of her game with "Intimate Apparel," a story of the American Dream unraveling for six well-conceived characters.

The action centers on Esther (Lindsey McWhorter), an illiterate daughter of a former slave who has learned to fashion exquisitely beautiful intimate apparel that is much desired both by the fashionable Ladies of the Town as well as the Ladies of the Night!  Fearing she may remain a spinster, she is surprised to receive a pen pal letter from Panama.  A laborer from Barbados has been given her name by someone from his church, and they begin a correspondence that leads to a long distance proposal of marriage. George (Brandon G. Green) arrives to marry Esther, but their dreams of a future together are not comprised of a matching set of patterns.  They clash.  Esther had been warned by her busybody widowed landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Cheryl D. Singleton), not to put too much faith in marrying a man she hardly knew, but Esther saw this as her last chance at love and a home of her own - a way out of the boarding house where she seemed destined to become a permanent fixture, like a stick of furniture.

The plot thickens as Esther develops feelings for Mr. Marks (Nael Nacer), the Jewish seller of fine fabrics who is her supplier for the raw material for her intimate apparel.  One of her best customers is Mayme (Kris Sidberry), a brassy hooker who adds her own thread of complication to the crazy quilt of the plot.  The final member of the irregular sextet is Mrs.Van Buren (Amanda Ruggier), a rich client of Esther's who is caught in a loveless marriage.

Each actor deserves special mention.

  • Ms. McWhorter's portrayal of Esther is a revelation.  At times, her physical carriage and facial expressions reminded me of the self-effacing Miss Celie in "The Color Purple" as she meets Sug Avery for the first time.  Like Celie, Esther grows in her self-awareness, self-confidence and boldness as the action of the play develops.  Ms. McWhorter conveys these subtle changes magnificently.
  • Ms. Singleton is a wonderful counterpoint to Ms. McWhorter's Esther, sweeping confidently into the room with her dress and hair arranged just so, steering the action of everyone in her path.  It is a strong performance.
  • Nael Nacer as Mr. Marks is full of wonderful contradictions.  He is warm while holding himself at a distance from Esther - physically and emotionally.  He is betrothed in an arranged marriage to a distant fiancee in Romania, but is clearly lonely.  He is bursting at the seams to express something for Esther, but religion and social convention forbid him from expressing his feelings except through gifts of fabric - for an ominous smoking jacket and later for Esther's wedding gown..The overall impression I had of Mr. Marks was of a less frenetic version of Motel the Tailor from "Fiddler on the Roof."
  • Ms. Sidberry plays Mayme with a wonderful combination of sauciness, neediness and tenderness.  Her playing of ragtime piano adds a wonderful layer of texture to the telling of this story.
  • Ms. Ruggiero's portrayal of the Mrs. Van Buren character is a study in contradictions.  On the surface she is elegant and in command, yet beneath she silky exterior she is emotionally threadbare, living in a marriage to a man who is absent.  Esther, her social inferior, is her only friend and confidante.  When she tries to expresses her love for Esther, things unravel even further, throwing Esther into confusion and leading to mutual rejection.
  • Mr. Green portrays George initially as a simple and physically imposing laborer reaching out to Esther for some respite from his hard work in the steamy jungles of Panama.  He evolves into a scheming manipulator, eventually coercing Esther into giving him the money she has been saving to open a beauty salon where women of color can be treated with dignity.
Kris Sidberry as Mayme
Lindsey McWhorter as Esther
"Intimate Apparel"
Lynn Nottage
Lyric Stage Company
Through march 14

The moment when Esther rps open the seams of her glorious crazy quilt to unearth the treasure she has scrimped to save is emblematic of the lives of many of the characters:coming unstitched and having the stuffing torn out.

The writing is both plain and poetic, rife with deep observations about the human condition.  The fabric of each of the characters' lives is beginning to come apart at the seams in some way, with several permutations of unrequited and forbidden love thrown in to add to the sense of drama and danger. The playwright and the director have conspired cleverly together to add nuanced touches that highlight this motif of things unraveling.  George's shirt has a rip in it; Mr. Marks is missing a button from his vest.

The work of the six actors is strongly supported by the creative team.  The Set Design by Anne Sherer is gorgeous an makes full use of the space at the Lyric.  Amanda Mujica's Costumes are sumptuous and help to create and to enhance the characters they clothe.  Lighting by Chris Hudacs and Sound by Kelsey Jarboe complete the very effective mise-en-scene.

Lynn Nottage was inspired to write this play after seeing a photograph of her great-grandmother that she had found in her grandmother's house.  That moment is re-created poignantly with projections of two photos - an anonymous Negro couple circa 1905 and an anonymous Negro seamstress, also circa 1905.  You would be hard pressed to find a play this season - in Boston or New York - that brings into focus more perfectly the human condition and the precarious nature of the American Dream than this production of "Intimate Apparel."

I encourage you to click below to order your tickets.  Do not delay.  A stitch in time saves nine!

Through March 14 only.

Lyric Stage Website



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