Dorset's 'Apparel' Takes an Intimate Look Into the Soul
DORSET >> History isn't just an informative discipline; it's perhaps the most instructive, whether taught in a classroom or self-studied. Given the themes of gender, race and culture surrounding Dorset Theatre Festival's 2015 season kickoff, "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage, history can be highly personal, and spares us few of its potent human lessons.
In the play - winner of the 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle award, and directed by Giovanna Sardelli - we are transported to 1905 lower Manhattan. There, at a boarding house run by the prudently maternal Mrs. Dickson (Elain Graham), where Esther (Marinda Anderson), a right proper and God-fearing but still single 35-year old black seamstress, plies away at her trade.
She makes beautiful pieces for clients like the rich, white Mrs. Van Buren (Janie Brookshire) and Esther's prostitute friend Mayme (Chantal Jean-Pierre), both with whom she shares unusual closeness, and whose largely different lives highlight her own stasis.
Esther's material supplier is the Orthodox Jew Mr. Marks (Charles Socarides), who is trapped in an arranged Romanian marriage, yet is one more person drawn to the seamstress. In the middle of this routine, Esther receives an unexpected yet strangely intimate letter from Barbadian George Armstrong (Avery Glymph), a laborer on the Panama Canal.
This message – the start of a long-distance romance - turns her world upside down, and further accentuates Esther's willingness to break the suppression of desire that identifies her world. To accomplish this, the play's cast puts in a Herculean effort to bridge the gap between the deeply human drama playing our before us, and the cultural history lesson which seemingly never ends.
Graham, as Esther's early protector and mentor, made us wish our own mothers had adopted her folksy mix of tolerance and practicality; she was utterly believable in her role as protector, but just enough hands-off to let things happen as they may.
This credibility also applies to Jean-Pierre's fanciful and sultry mix of fun and reality-check: street-smart Mayme to Esther's naivete. Hers was the ultimate in tragicomedy, both amusing and pathetic, and pulled off expertly.
Brookshire drank, bubbled and stumbled her way nicely as Mrs. Van Buren, leaving us subtle hints (pay close attention not only to her words, but also to her body language) as to where her true colors flew.
In that same vein, Socarides, who thrilled Dorset audiences opposite Tim Daly in last season's "Red," telegraphed his own desires through pauses, hesitations, and apprehensions that made us at once wince and lean forward – wanting him to break free of his adeptly constructed personal lock-up.
Glymph floated between dreamy desirableness and real-time contempt. To pull that off required shifting gears that left us unsettled, as we rightly should have been by the unfolding of George.
Finally, Anderson was perfectly cast as Esther. In keeping with the irony of her name's Biblical significance, Anderson projected a voice for all groups who are marginalized, and did so in a compassionate, convincing manner. We find ourselves rooting for her, yet still shake our heads at times while exclaiming, "Poor child!" inside.
The play ran for almost two and a half hours, which included a 20-minute intermission.
Michael Giannitti's lights highlighted critical moments and tension, and sound by Ryan Rumery followed suit. Sydney Maresca's costumes were a cornucopia of colors. Andrew Boyce's set was a utilitarian and multifunctional piece of stage location, and Joanna Obuzor's stage management was evident by the smooth flow from scene to scene in this complex production.
In the midst of all the gender, race and religion issues surrounding this poignant, tale, it's easy to forget the cultural and economic backdrop of early 20th century America. Immigration, industry and urbanization were at fever pitch. And that's where history comes back to remind us of spawning winds of change, as well as the people caught in them.
Just as important in such eras is the history of individual human grace, and why it matters to the rest of us. In these difficult times where the ways to divide rather than to unite seem overwhelming, we can take heart in Esther's grace – if not in her visceral screams for love and affection - and go see it all unfold on the Dorset stage before the short run of this play is over.
"Intimate Apparel" runs through July 5 at Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., in Dorset. For tickets and information call 802-867-2223 or visit www.dorsettheartrefestival.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@TellyHalkias
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