Saturday, February 11, 2006

Intimate Apparel (Cleveland Play House)

‘INTIMATE APPAREL’ a good fit at CPH

Lynn Nottage is one of America’s great new playwrights. Her play ‘INTIMATE APPAREL,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was the recipient of five major national awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Outer Circle Award as Best Play of 2004.

It’s the beginning of the 20th Century. Esther, a plain and unsophisticated black woman, creates intimate apparel for socialites and a woman of ill repute. Desperate for love and marriage, she receives a letter supposedly written by George, a young Barbados worker on the Panama Canal who has been given Esther’s name by the son of her minister. Esther can’t read or write, but one of her wealthy clients volunteers to scribe letters for her. And, so, a series of documents are traded back and forth.

Esther gets joy from the beautiful silks she buys from an Orthodox Jewish merchant, Mr. Marks. Their relationship is commercial, but each looks forward to their contacts. He saves beautiful fabric just for her. He, too, is in a distant relationship as he has been matched with a Rumanian woman he has never met.

George arrives in New York and he and Esther are married. Their joy, is short-lived. George’s drinking, philandering and cheating Esther out of her hard earned money soon cause havoc.

This is a history of the black, the female and the immigrant experience in America. It is also an exploration of the true world of one of Nottage's aunts who left the rural South to become a seamstress in New York.

The Cleveland Play House presentation, which is listed as a joint production with the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, is very effective. The Louisville-honed cast is generally excellent and director Timothy Bond, the Associate Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, does an excellent job of pacing the nearly two-and-a-half hour show, so that the audience is engrossed throughout.

Gwendolyn Mulamba is compelling as Esther. She controls the stage with her complete emersion into the character. This is an impressive performance.

Denise Cormier is excellent as the frustrated wealthy patron for whom Esther not only makes intimate apparel, but is her emotional outlet. Tiffany Adams is effective as the prostitute. She has a fine singing voice. It is a shame that she doesn’t play the piano as her faking the movements, with the sound obviously coming from off-stage, was distracting.

Joe Hickey is convincing as Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant. His scenes with Mulamba are awkwardly charming. Each character exposes his/her “intimate apparel,” their cultural histories, in a series of well-paced and beautifully interpreted scenes.

Erik LaRay Harvey had some excellent moments as Esther’s pen pal and eventual husband. There were times, however, when his concentration seemed to slip, his accent disappear, and his performance flowed along the surface. Perri Gaffney was not always convincing as Esther’s landlady.

Paul Owen’s multi-level stage was very effective, Lorraine Venberg’s costumes era correct, and Darren McCroom’s lighting enhanced the production.

Be warned that the poor acoustics in the Bolton Theatre makes hearing some of the dialogue difficult. This creates special problems early in the show as the listeners’ ears adjust to Esther’s necessary Southern Black pronunciation.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘INTIMATE APPAREL’ is not only an appropriate presentation during Black History Month, but is also a play and a production worth seeing.