If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Westport Playhouse Stages Nottage Drama
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn (“Ruined”) Nottage had one of her early successes with “Intimate Apparel”, a quiet drama about life for African-American women circa 1905 in New York City. The play, produced by Manhattan’s Roundabout Theatre Company in 2004, closes out the current season at the Westport Country Playhouse.
“Intimate Apparel” is the soulful journey of Esther (Nikki E. Walker), a middle-aged African-American woman, who came to the big city with dreams of opening her own beauty parlor and is presently stuck at a boarding house for unmarried women. She has found her talent, however, in the meticulous sewing she’s mastered to provide lacy undergarments for high (and low) society ladies. But Esther feels the sands of time running out and the play becomes her ultimate search for love. She begins a correspondence with a young Caribbean man she’s never met. He is working on the Panama Canal initially contacted her via her pastor’s suggestion. Unable to read or write, Esther relies on the help of one of her clients to help compose the letters. A marriage proposal soon arrives and “Intimate Apparel” takes another complex turn.
Nottage’s play gives real life to a series of interesting supporting characters that interact with Esther. They include a lonely society woman, a jovial prostitute and the Orthodox Jew who sells her material. But the character of Esther is central to this drama and, at this point, Miss Walker’s performance is rather unsteady in Westport. On opening night, in addition to scattered line problems, Esther just didn’t register as a compelling or engaging center. Not yet. And without that crucial focus, the play is lacking. I also question some very leisurely pacing on the part of director Mary B. Robinson, especially evident in the first act. And the numerous settings provided by scenic designer Allen Moyer, while nicely detailed, are cramped and make for awkward blocking.
Still, the play is the thing and any opportunity to see this richly rewarding work is worthwhile. Aleta Mitchell makes for a formidable landlady and Isaiah Johnson, in a difficult role, gets it mostly right as Esther’s exotic love interest. Heather Alicia Simms has fun in the outsized role of the gregarious prostitute and Tommy Schrider is warmly understated as the Jewish merchant. There is no reason that Walker can’t hit her stride in the role as it goes along. It just wasn’t there for this viewer on opening night.
“Intimate Apparel” continues at the Westport Playhouse through November 1. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.