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Nikki E. Walker as Esther and Rachel Leslie as Mayme. Photo: Alex Ottaviano
Nikki E. Walker as Esther and Rachel Leslie as Mayme. Photo: Alex Ottaviano

Theatre Review: Intimate Apparel at Syracuse Stage

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The play Intimate Apparel runs at Syracuse Stage through March 19. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage was inspired by the lives of the playwright's great-grandparents.  It tells the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress in the New York City of 1905.  She specializes in making fancy undergarments for both wealthy Fifth Avenue ladies and prostitutes.  A correspondence with Esther is initiated by a Barbadian worker on the Panama Canal that soon blossoms into a possible romance.  INTIMATE APPAREL is a story of friendship and romance, illusion and disillusion.

As Esther, Nikki E. Walker gives a lovely performance.  We see the gradual opening up of a rigidly protective woman to reveal a warm human being.  Rachel Leslie plays Mayme, Esther's prostitute friend, with verve and panache.  She also shows us the character's sensitivity underneath the bluster in Act II, and does well throughout with the piano faking.  Lizan Mitchell gives us a wise and gentle landlady in Mrs. Dickson, while Amy Lynn Stewart lets us understand the friendlessness and lack of warmth of Mrs. VanBuren's fashionable white world.

Brian Anthony Wilson gives a powerful and multi-level performance as George, Esther's Barbadian suitor.  It takes a little time to get used to his accent, but it's very good and the ear soon adjusts.  Jeff Wiens is wonderful as Mr. Marks, the shy Jewish fabric salesman.  The tea scene with Esther and their final scene together are two of the most sensitive and touching moments in the play.

The technical production is first rate, as is usual at Syracuse Stage.  Designer Tony Cisek had created an unusual and inventive set using lengths of stretched and twisted fabric as a framework.  These provide an interesting canvas for Michael Gilliam's excellent lighting.  Tracy Dorman's colorful period costumes are right on the money, especially the shoes.  Vinnie Olivieri has composed really nice period music, as well as creating an effective sound design.  I particularly liked the distant laughter.

Once again I'd like to congratulate whoever did the programs.  They're packed full of interesting information and background material, including a fascinating piece by playwright Nottage.

Director Timothy Douglas, whose work I've previously admired, has done a fine job with INTIMATE APPAREL.  The staging is creative and he's shaped his fine cast into a strong ensemble.  Mr. Douglas has brought out all the drama, wit and humor in this very human play.  This fictional portrait of Esther becomes a portrait of an age of American history.

On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage/Indiana Repertory Theatre co-production of INTIMATE APPAREL gets four and three fourths oranges.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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