Some plays seek to overwhelm, while others seek to seduce. Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” is of the latter variety, for if you wrote a plot outline of the play you probably wouldn’t fill half a page, yet in the play’s two-plus hours you are slowly drawn into a world of a fascinating, strong-willed woman who is basically searching for love, albeit in places that, for one reason or another, cannot satisfy. As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, this tender, bittersweet play comes beautifully and tenderly alive on Playhouse on Park’s thrust stage with a cast that is just about perfect.
Sean Harris, one of the Playhouse’s artistic directors, is usually charged with casting POP’s productions, and if he did so in this case he should get a medal, for the six actors on stage just don’t embody their roles, they seem to live and breathe them. Leading the cast as Esther is Darlene Hope, an actor of phenomenal talent who is able to convey emotions with just a cant of her head or a roll of her eyes. She plays a seamstress who has been saving her money, sewn into a bedspread, so she can eventually open a beauty parlor that caters to the needs of black women. She has been living in a boarding house in lower Manhattan(circa 1905) run by Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray) for close to two decades, sewing intimate apparel for various uptown ladies, chief among them Mrs. Van Buren (the striking Anna Laura Strider) whose husband has lost interest in her because she can’t conceive.
Esther often travels to the garment district to buy material, primarily from Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin), a Jewish draper who is engaged to a woman he has never met who still lives in “the old country.” He dresses primarily in black (to honor God, as he explains to Esther) and is constrained from touching a woman by his religion. They are drawn to each other, but their contact is defined by the bolts of cloth he offers her for inspection – he caresses the cloth, she caresses the cloth. In these moments you can almost hear their hearts pounding.
Given the structure of POP’s stage, scenic design is often a challenge, but Marcus Abbott, who also designed the lighting, gives the audience four distinct arenas: Esther’s room is downstage right; Mr. Mark’s shop is upstage right. Then there’s Mrs. Van Buren’s boudoir, which is downstage left and finally, upstage left, defined by a piano, is where Mayme (Zuri Eshun) plies her trade, a lady of soiled reputation who dreams of being a concert pianist. Navarro has Esther travel easily and seamlessly from one world to another, although the director has opted to have props removed and placed by a stage hand, which, oddly enough, becomes a bit distracting – the job, not onerous, could easily have been done by the actors themselves during the blackouts and have been less intrusive. Also, an unresolved problem is how to handle the “bedding” scenes early in the second act – the absence of a bed presents certain problems, but they are minor.
So we have Esther dutifully working towards her goal of opening a beauty parlor until her world is disrupted by George (a slick and tale-weaving Beethoven Oder) a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal who has run across a man from Esther’s church. The man suggests that George write to Esther, which he does. Esther is smitten and disregards Mrs. Dickson’s warnings. Never having seen George, Esther, with all of her restrained passion, falls in love with the idea of love. The first act (which probably could be snipped and cut – it does seem a bit long) ends with George appearing in Manhattan for their wedding.
The second act, shorter and more intense, has Esther learn some age-old lessons about love, men and friendship. In the hands of less accomplished actors, this might all seem a bit overly melodramatic, but it works. This is much to the credit of Hope, who weaves her character’s transformation from that of a smitten, prim young lady to one who is, albeit heartbroken, wiser and stronger. Hers is a complete, engrossing performance that allows you to see the soul of a woman who rises above the failures and foibles of others, and though the play ends with Esther back where she started, there is no sense that she has been defeated.
This is a play, and a production, that you have to stay with, that you have to allow to unfold in its own good time. Given that we are often treated to explosions or emotional fireworks erupting every two of three minutes in the films or TV shows we see, we have to be willing to shift gears to appreciate what the folks at POP have created and what Nottage has written. It is delicate and, if we allow it to be, subtly transforming, for we are allowed to enter into the world of a woman we might pass by on the street without giving her a second notice, yet she is a woman with hopes, dreams and passions that make her, in her own way, utterly captivating.
“Intimate Apparel” runs through March 4. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org