by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Philip Akin

Reviewed by Robin Breon


If there is one thing that we can learn about the theatre by watching Lynn Nottage's flawless play, Intimate Apparel (which originally premiered at Baltimore's Centre Stage in 2003), it is that if you actually study the craft of theatre it may help you to go on and - as is true in the case of Ms. Nottage - do great things. The 46 year old playwright studied at Brown University and the Yale School of Drama, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the NY Drama Critics Circle Award, the John Gassner Outer Critics Circle award, a MacArthur Genius Grant (not to mention a Pulitzer Prize) as well as numerous other awards. She clearly thinks about what she is doing and then goes out and does it very well indeed.


The only thing better than writing a good play is having it presented properly and by that I mean in a venue that is appropriate with production values that support the work rather than undermining it. And for this we have to thank Philip Aiken, the artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, Canada's largest Black theatre company, for ensuring that this play would be seen in Toronto. Intimate Apparel had its intimate Canadian premiere in 2008 at the small 167 seat upstairs space at Berkeley Street before general manager of Can Stage, David Abel, invited the show onto the mainstage of the Bluma Appel Theatre where it rightfully belongs.


This class based story of interlocking characters in turn of the century New York (1905), takes it strength from the central role of Esther, the African American seamstress who, in the first act, carries on a long distance romantic correspondence with a labourer who is employed in the building of the Panama Canal. Raven Dauda as Esther plays the self-reliant woman who, at the age of 35, only lacks confidence in the area of her social skills. She interacts with Mrs. Dickson (Marium Carvell), the owner of the boarding house where she has lived in lower Manhattan for the past 18 years; with Mrs. Van Buren (played by Carly Street) who is the upper class, lonely socialite for whom Esther constructs enticing corsets; with Mayme (Lisa Berry) the local piano playing prostitute; with Mr. Marks (Alex Poch-Goldin), the shy Orthodox Jewish merchant who sells her fabric; and, finally, with George (Kevin Hanchard), Esther's love interest who we hear by way of long distance, romantically recited correspondence in the first act and who emerges "for real" in the second act.


A well crafted play demands the skills of gifted actors and here again, Aiken's production rings pitch perfect true. The sweeping romantic arch of the play and the neatly delineated main characters, captures much of what was compelling about the style of 19th century American melodrama, so much so that, at a critical point in the second act, audience members (especially the women) are moved to call out a warning to their heroine, Esther, "don't do it!", "no, don't you do it girl!" - such is the emotional pull of this play.


Although the Canadian Stage Company's new artistic and general director, Matthew Jocelyn, has not yet announced his upcoming season (the first that he will produce) at this writing, one thing is certain - Lynn Nottage's new play, Ruined (her take on Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children) is definitely on the bill, to be directed by Mr. Aiken. For that we give thanks.

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