Words by Moriah Joy.
Images courtesy of courtesy of Anne M. Peterson, ODU College of Arts & Letters.
Intimate Apparel is a story of Esther Mills, a Black woman from North Carolina, who came to New York City to make a life for herself. During the course of her years in New York, she became wrapped up in working and saving for her dream of owning a beauty parlor and had no prospects of love. Until one day she begins receiving letters from a man in Panama, George Armstrong, who was given her name by one of the other gentlemen working on the canal. Esther begins developing feelings for him as she writes to him with the help of Mayme, her friend who is a sex worker, and Mrs. Van Buren, who is a client but desires a deeper connection with Esther. She is discouraged from making any commitments to George by her landlady, Mrs. Dickson, who acts as a mother figure to Esther. Esther also is conflicted because of an attraction she has to Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric salesman from Romania who is engaged to a woman he has never met before. All of these personalities collide into a story that feels deeply personal as each character fights for their own freedom using whatever means they can.
The portrayal of the stories and the characters made it feel like I was watching the innermost details of Esther’s diary brought to life before my eyes. Leila Bryant’s portrayal of Esther Mills was beautiful and painful to watch as the audience wants nothing but the best for this woman who has seen such hardships in her life and can’t seem to find her way out despite her kind heart. She has a grace about her that makes it seem as though she is more refined than her counterparts. This became apparent as Mrs. Dickson, played by Amaya Wills, enters the stage with a commanding voice and personality. Her thoughtfulness and playful mannerisms made her a delight to watch every time she graced the stage. Tim Suddeth, who plays Mr. Marks, brings a thoughtful and charming portrayal of the character as he is faithful to his religion but desires a more meaningful relationship with Esther than just his customer.
The true star of the show however was Brandy Clark who portrayed Mayme. Every moment she was on stage there was a tangible energy that surged throughout the show and the audience. Her piano playing was soulful and told a story all its own as her emotions surged through every stroke of the keys. There is such a strong desire to see her character succeed because of her portrayal that it makes it difficult to dislike her even when she reveals her fatal flaw.
Unfortunately, the ensemble was not as cohesive as it could have been. The portrayal of Mrs. Van Buren by Holly-Grace Bjork felt confused as her character flitted around the stage with very little motivation and a culmination of accents making it difficult to understand her backstory and feel any sympathy for her character. I was also distracted by the nose-ring the actress wore during a show that was so committed to being truthful to the time period. George Armstrong, who is played by Tahji McCombs, is a character who remains enigmatic until his arrival in America and he directly interacts with Esther. In the beginning of the show, his character seemed lost as there were some recordings of his lines where he would move his hands to the lines but then the movement didn’t always match what the words were saying. The intention behind this choice seemed to be the desire to leave the audience perplexed and distrusting of George’s character from the beginning which was accomplished. However, his performance towards the end of the show was much more engaging and had the audience on the edge of their seats.
The technical aspects of this show were truly impressive and made the world of the play an immersive experience. When first entering the space of the Goode Theatre I was overwhelmed with how beautiful the set was. Consisting of five different playing spaces across two levels, Jim Lyden perfectly encapsulated the feeling of being in New York and Panama while seamlessly floating between the worlds of lower classes and the upper class. One of the most impressive pieces of this set design includes a two story quilt draped across the back wall as if it were the finest tapestry Esther could afford, telling the story of her life through the hard work of her hands. This set design was further enhanced by the lighting design by Sean Blue as he assigned each space a color giving a kaleidoscope effect on stage. One of my favorite moments of the show was right before Esther meets George in person, each space is lit up to show the color that each person in the story adds to Esther’s life. Then once she finally gets what she has been wanting for so long the colors all come together over her to form a rainbow as if Esther is putting on rose colored glasses but for the audience, this is the last time we see such vibrant colors on stage realized that her dream has turned out to be a nightmare.
Fabric and the individuality of clothing play a key role in the storytelling and Meredith Magoun costumes are as big a supporting player as anyone on that stage. Each piece is carefully crafted to tell the audience without words how the characters fit into society with impeccable detail. I was amazed with the way the beautiful costumes were not only accurate to the time but how they played a vital role in telling the stories of the characters.
Overall, Intimate Apparel was a carefully crafted work of art directed by Brittany Harris whose vision was clear and told a story that everyone needs to hear. Intimate Apparel is running for it’s final shows Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are $15 for General Admission, $5 for Students, and $10 for Facility and Staff. For more information or to purchase your tickets click here.