Intimate Apparel Theater Review

Through August 27 at the 1000 Islands Playhouse
Jonathan Silver and Gloria Mampuya in Intimate Apparel
Jonathan Silver and Gloria Mampuya in Intimate Apparel(Thousand Islands Playhouse)
Published: Aug. 7, 2023 at 11:29 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 15, 2023 at 3:01 PM EDT
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Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage at 1000 islands playhouse, Gananoque, Ontario.

Lynn Nottage is one of the most lauded playwrights of our day. She is in the rare club of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners, and when you consider dramatists, the club is even smaller. An earlier play that put Nottage on the map is her turn of the century drama, Intimate Apparel. Inspired by an old photograph of her great grandmother, Nottage delved deep into research to discover and then illuminate the story of an “unidentified” woman.

Esther (Gloria Mampuya) is a hard working and very talented seamstress working in New York City in 1905. Her specialty is intimate apparel, and because of this she sees many of her clients up close and vulnerable. Mrs. Van Buren, played by Olivia Neary-Hatton, is a society wife struggling to conceive a child. She confides in Esther, but her life is decidedly envious and carefree compared to her own. Esther boards at Mrs. Dickson’s (Kirsten Alter), her warm and loving presence is like that of a big sister or mother. Esther gets her fabric from Mr. Marks (Jonathan Silver). Marks, like Esther, is unmarried, and there is an obvious attraction between the two of them, that can never come to fruition. He is Jewish and promised to a woman he has never met, and Esther is black. The scenes between the two of them are lovely, full of subtext and mutual understanding and affection, but never overplayed. Esther is pious and Christian, but by no means naïve or ignorant. Her best friend is a prostitute, Mayme (KhaRa Martin). Esther understands that they are few choices for women of color to make a living in New York City in 1905, and she doesn’t judge her friend.

Early in the play the drama is set into motion when Esther receives a letter from an unknown man, named George (Fode Bangoura) who is a laborer on the Panama Canal. At first Esther doesn’t take the flowery correspondence from George seriously, furthermore she cannot read or write, and the letters must be read to her by Mrs. Dickson or Mrs. Van Buren. Of course, someone also must write the letters for Esther back to George. When George arrives in New York City, and proposes to Esther, the drama of the exciting second act is set into motion.

Director Lisa Karen Cox does a crisp job, unobtrusively guiding her actors to let the story and their rich character arcs unfold. This is a great production because it does exactly what the play needs to do, move the story forward smoothly and unhurriedly. It is perfectly paced, allowing the story of Esther and her difficult journey to find a place in society to seep into the plot. The play’s richness comes from what the play is about, not the plot of the play. Thus, creating a rich theater going experience, that never hits you over the head with pretension. Kudos to everyone involved in this great show. All creatives work well together, and the performances are great, especially Mampuya who is the essence of dignity and vulnerability and Silver who brings so much richness to the few scenes he is in.

At the 1000 Islands Playhouse – Firehouse Theater in Gananoque, Ontario, running through August 27.