BY LOU BUTTINO
On first glance, Centre Stage’s current offering, “Intimate Apparel,” by award winning author Lynn Nottage could be dismissed as an underdressed visitor. That would be a mistake. Ms. Nottage has written a powerful piece of finery well pieced together and presented by Centre Stage.
The play was inspired by the author’s great grandmother’s personal story as a seamstress in early 20th century New York City. Her writing is powerful and poetic while making each of the 6 characters sound realistic and convincing. Much of the theme involves love, searched for, unrequited, disapproved of, sought after, found and lost. There are also sub-plots of class, race and ethnicity.
Antoinette Hall displays a wide array of traits as Esther, the main character of the play. She is the trusted confidante of most of the other characters who keeps much to herself while, on occasion, letting her thoughts be known. She is the creative seamstress producing her lacy works of art for a wide range of clientele from upper class white women to black prostitutes, acclaimed by all. And she is a good friend able to share conversation and comfort. The audience feels her loneliness while not being overwhelmed by maudlin self-pity. The audience trusts her character portrayal as easily as her acquaintances trust her.
Gisele Anthony portrays Mrs. Dickson, the boarding house proprietor. She is gossip, advisor, confederate and surrogate mother all at the same time. Ms. Anthony does this in an affable way with an air of wisdom and concern with just a touch of jealousy for her young boarders who move out, onward and, hopefully, upward.
Esther has two “friends” from the opposite ends of the social spectrum. Both played with fierce honesty and each with a little pathos in their vastly different lives. Maegan McNerney Azar is Mrs. Van Buren, a rich, childless, society woman going through her pampered life without true love or direction, and who ultimately confuses Esther. And Regina Wells plays the delightfully raunchy prostitute Mayme, looking for love in all the wrong places who ultimately betrays and then reconciles with Esther. These two fine actors brought laughs, tears and thoughts to the audience.
The two male members of this small, very tight cast made their own stimulating and weighty contributions to the story. Maury Reed was totally immersed in his character Mr. Marks, the Hasidic fabric merchant. He was vulnerable, sensitive and consistent while showing beautiful enthusiasm for his wares and for Esther. He also definitely looked and sounded like he would be right at home reading from The Torah on any given Saturday. Stephen Brown, as George Armstrong, had me at the opening of his first letter to Esther. Besides elocuting in a fine authentic West Indian patois, his range of emotions and depth/complexity of character traits were amazing. He was the sweet, engaging hero of Act I, developing a complete character while not actually interacting directly with any of the other characters. He then became the devious, opportunistic and faithless villain of Act II.
Although the entire show, from start to finish, was excellent, it is in Act II where the play soars. All of the defining interactions between Esther and each of her acquaintances are powerful and emotional, all. The best of the best comes when Esther and George make their final pleas to each other for what they want and what they need. They push their raw passion to great heights and bring the audience along with them. I was held firm by Ms. Hall’s and Mr. Brown’s gripping performances.
There are more than a few individual lines such as “man and wife have no quarrel in the bedroom”, that will stay with the audience after they have left the theater. There are also several themes and plot tools that are interwoven in the fabric of the play.
The word “intimate” in the title is a clue to the fact that all of the characters are searching, without much success, for intimacy in their lives. Mrs. Dickson, a widow, pursues it through the lives of her boarders. Mrs. Van Buren, in a childless, loveless marriage is looking for something, she doesn’t know what, to provide it. Mayme provides “love” to many men but experiences true intimacy with none. Mr. Marks is headed to a marriage to a fiancée he has never met. George Armstrong is surrounded by hundreds of workers and dozens of available women and is painfully lonely. And Esther, like many unmarried 35 year olds is lonely and anxious.
Much of the action takes place in four different bedrooms, which are symbols of intimacy between couples but none of those portrayed here are sites for it. In fact, intimacy is paradoxically absent in these bedrooms. The author asks, “Are there others like these out there?”.
Finally, the sense of touch is given considerable prominence. Both Esther and Mr. Marks touch the fabrics that are important to them in an a most sensual way. There are times during the story where the act of “touching” is either encouraged or discouraged. There is even a surreptitious act of touching that takes place.
This play is extremely well written and the actors are given beautiful prose to wrap their acting skills around. The entire cast is up to the challenge, providing honest mannerisms, nuanced qualities and convincing accents.
Director, Kerrie Seymour, has done a marvelous job knitting together Lynn Nottage’s beautiful words with her cast’s acting skills putting just enough edge where it is effective and just enough thoughtfulness where telling. She got everything and more from her actors.
Glenda Manwaring has designed a set that works perfectly in Centre Stage’s intimate space. It was so convincing that not once was I distracted by it nor did I wish for something more or less. I must admit that that is somewhat a rarity for me. Kendra Johnson’s costuming was spot on for all the apparel, intimate and otherwise. Strong lighting design by Kevin Frazier and hair/makeup by Victor de Leon complete a fabulous team effort on this fabulous show.
“Intimate Apparel” continues Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through July 1 at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6733 or visit http://www.centrestage.org.