By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 10-minute intermission
We easily take for granted so many items we use or see on a daily basis but, do we ever stop to think about the people behind those items? How do these items come into existence? Sure, today we can be 99.9% certain all of our everyday items come from a factory somewhere in the world, built by machines and synthetics, but, at the turn of the century, mostly everything was created by hand… by people. One of the most common, everyday items we deal with everyday (most people anyway) is underwear and, though not a taboo topic these days, back in 1905, it was truly unmentionable. Everyman Theatre‘s latest production, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Tazewell Thompson, gives us a glimpse into the lives of one of those folks who created, by hand, ladies underwear, reminding us that even everyday items sometimes have a story all their own.
Though the title can be a little misleading, Intimate Apparel is not really about underwear, but, in a nutshell, about a woman, Esther, who makes her living sewing these articles of clothing for ladies throughout New York City. She is an entrepreneur, making her own way in the world, which was quit uncharacteristic for women of color at that time, but she certainly has grand aspirations but is unmarried, illiterate, and in her mid-thirties. She begins a courtship with a man half-way across the world through letters and hopes this relationship will bring her a better future.
Everyman Theatre has never disappoints when it comes to sets and, though this set isn’t as impressive as previous productions, Set Design by Donald Eastman is simple, but absolutely appropriate for this piece. Earthy colors exude the feeling of the New York City tenements of the early 1900s and the authentic, well-chosen set pieces help set the time and move the story along nicely.
Costume Design by David Burdick is sensational as well as authentic with an eye for detail. All of the ladies were dressed in the turn of the century style with contrasts in the class of these characters quite apparent. The gentlemen, who have less complex costumes, are still dressed in styles that fit the individual character such as a 1900s Jewish shop owner and an African-American laborer. All the tailored costumes of the very different characters are carefully though-out and add great value to the production.
Tazewell Thompson takes the reigns of this production and has a good comprehension of the story and text and gives us a well put-together production. Pacing is consistent and there’s no dragging in the action, even if the story itself drags along at times. The transitions between scenes are seamless and each character is nicely fleshed out. The script is so-so, but Thompson has managed to tell this story in as much an interesting way as possible. His casting is to be commended and his vision is clear making for a poignant, focused production of a script that kind of falls flat.
Moving onto the performance aspect of this production, it’s worth mentioning that, even though I’m not 100% on board with the script (did I make that clear enough, yet?), I am on board with the ability and interpretation of this able and dedicated cast.
Bueka Uwemedimo takes on the role of George, the pen pal turned love interest of Esther, our main character, and a laborer who is digging for the Panama Canal. Uwemedimo has a good grasp on this character and gives a commendable performance but he does seem to yell through his entire performance while speaking… so… slowly. There’s projecting from the stage and there’s yelling and it seems Uwemedimo is doing the latter. Regardless, I can understand ever word he’s saying and he’s dedicated to his role confidently portraying his character as the “villain” with ease and authenticity.
Mayme, the kind, sweet girl who dreamed of being a concert pianist but had to resort to prostitution while renting a room on top of a saloon, is portrayed by Jade Wheeler. While wheeler seems to understand her character well, it feels as though she’s calling her performance in. The character is laid back but Wheeler’s interpretation seems a little too laid back, especially in her speaking. Mayme is a transplant from Memphis, Tennessee but has not a lick of a southern drawl that one would expect. Maybe she’s been up north too long? Aside from a good, albeit uninspiring performance, it’s definitely worth noting that Wheeler is a top-notch vocalist. She plays the piano and belts out a jazzy tune that just about brings down the house while exhibiting her proficient musicality.
Mrs. Dickson, the boarding house landlady and friend to Esther, is played brilliantly by Jenn Walker and she completely embodies this character playing her with a great balance of being a realist and a compassionate friend. The character is relatable, as is, since most of us can claim we have someone like this in our family or circle of friends; one who wants what’s best for us and cares deeply for us but doesn’t mind giving his or her opinion on everything, whether we like what they say or not. Walker is to be applauded for a strong performance.
Beth Hylton, an Everyman Theatre Company member tackles the complex role of Mrs. Van Buren, the rich socialite who is not only a client of but a friend to Esther, helping her in her quest to find love by writing the letters she’s sending to George. Hylton gives an impressive, confident performance and provides the contrast to the other characters all the while showing many similarities to Esther. Both are around the same age and both are yearning for love and companionship. Hylton has a great comprehension of her character and provides both attitude and mannerisms to make for a delightful performance.
As the jovial, devoutly Jewish shop owner, Mr. Marks, Drew Kopas is a highlight of this production an absolutely believable, making this character likable from the start. From the Romanian accent to the costume, Kopas had this character down pat, without question. His dedication and focus are definitely clear in this performance and his chemistry with Dawn Ursula is spot on.
Speaking of Dawn Ursula, she rounds out the cast and is a joy to watch as Esther, our unfortunate heroine with an entrepreneur’s spirt, trying to make her way through early 1900s New York City. Ursula takes this role, chews it up, and makes it her own. You can actually see the uncertainty and, at times, anguish this character is feeling in Ursula’s performance. Her commitment and enthusiasm for this role is apparent and it’s easy to see she’s giving 100% to this character. She portrays the changes her character goes through effortlessly and gives an overall splendid performance that makes for a moving and entertaining evening of theatre.
Final thought…Intimate Apparel is a poignant piece and gives insight to the people we don’t think about regularly, namely, laymen and women who create the beautiful or simple everyday items to which we don’t give a second thought. The story itself is a slow burn and is not my favorite and is not extremely impressive. Act I does not have much going for it in the way of an interesting story line and the minor subplots are more interesting than the main story line, but most of the performances are spot on and praiseworthy. The pacing is on point and the story moves along with a good tempo. Overall, it’s a focused, well put-together production and the story is an important one of searching for love, finding love, and losing love.
This is what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s production of Intimate Apparel… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Intimate Apparel will play through November 19 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-752-2208 or purchase them online.
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