By James V. Ruocco
Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" is one of those beautifully rendered, understated plays that benefits largely from its subtleties, silences, emotions, truths, openness and accumulative tenderness. It is also a richly textured work filled with plenty of heart and soul, which is something the playwright gracefully acknowledges and explores in all of her works including "Crumbs from the Table of Joy," "Poof!" and the Pulitzer prize-winning drama "Ruined."
Set in New York City, circa 1905, the actual play is based, in part, on the real-life story of her great grandmother (she is called Esther here), a proud, fiercely determined black seamstress (mainly, corsets, undergarments and lingerie) who, while longing for love and marriage, begins letter correspondence with a Barbadian immigrant (in the play, he is named George) she eventually marries.
The fact that she can neither read and write doesn't stop her either. In the play, the actual letters are written by two of her loyal clients: a black, hardscrabble prostitute (Mayme) and a talky, unhappily married white society woman (Mrs. Van Buren), who want to help her fulfill her dreams, wishes and desires.
The beauty of Playhouse on Park's earnest and poignant production of "Intimate Apparel" comes from Dawn Loveland Navarro's steadied, deft direction. Up front, this is a long, well-thought out play with detailed passages of dialogue that have been masterfully weaved throughout the piece by Nottage. It is also one of those plays were every word, every pause, every character exchange is important to the advancement and telling of the story. Therefore, you have to listen for fear of missing something very important and integral to the piece. And secondly, you want to listen because there is a poetic beauty and rawness to the dialogue similar to that of "Fences," "A Raisin in the Sun" and "A Lesson From Aloes."
Staging the two-act drama, Navarro creates a moving, intimate character piece that unfolds naturally without any force or artificiality. The stage movement is simple and expressionistic. The scene changes are fast and fluid without ever once putting a dent in the progression of the storytelling. Everything that happens has a purpose and a reason. The small yet magical Playhouse on Park stage also allows its audience to experience a warm and tender closeness with the actors, which, in a play of this context, heightens its velocity, allure and pathos.
And finally, because the actual play is based upon the life of Nottage's actual great grandmother, Navarro has a vast trunk of material to work with and shape to the point where it actually resembles a life-like scrapbook memoir. It is all very beautiful, very relevant and remarkably universal.
In the role of Esther, a part that seems tailor-made for Darlene Hope, the actress renders a performance that feels so natural and lived in, it's almost as if this beautifully animated character is an extension of herself. It's uncanny, yes. But it's ever so beautiful, especially since we spend nearly three hours with the actress (she rarely leaves the stage) watching her make every line of dialogue and expression so fresh, so honest and so beautifully positioned, we never once get the feeling we are watching a play. With Hope front and center, it's all very, very real....and then some.
The casting of Beethovan Oden as Hope's leading man is a stroke of genius. As George, he is charming, sexy and vulnerable without any sort of overkill. He's a man's man straight out of the period, in which the play is firmly set and established. His command of character and its development is soft, edgy, vulnerable, troubled and fractured. And there's an absolute freshness and gentility to his performance, which makes his work both commanding and ovation worthy.
In the role of Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant Esther uses as her primary supplier, the enigmatic Ben MacLaughlin delivers a rich, focused portrayal of a man torn between his religion and an impossible romance, which he must deliberately deny, despite strong feelings for a woman he knows he will never have. A fine actor, he also imbues his character with a quite strength and dignity which heightens his role in Esther's story.
Other fine performances are given by Anna Laura Strider as Mrs. Van Buren, Zuri Eshun as Mayme and Xenia Gray as Mrs. Dickson.
"Intimate Apparel" is a production that is rife with beauty, intelligence and imagination. Its thoughts and characters are artfully rendered. The acting choices of the entire cast are amazingly astute and real. And the story itself, as envisioned by acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage, is one that will lodge in your mind and heart long after the play has ended for many weeks to come.
"Intimate Apparel" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through March 4.
For tickets ore more information, call (860) 523-5900.