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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Intimate Apparel
By Macey Levin

Look what love done to me.— Mrs. Dickson
Nehassaiu deGannes and Christianna Nelson
Lynn Nottage is one of our country's foremost playwrights and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for Ruined in 2009 and Sweat this past April. Her earlier Intimate Apparel is currently at Shakespeare & Company's Bernstein Theatre in a problematic production.

Taking place in Manhattan in 1905 the play centers on Esther Mills (Nehassaiu deGannes), a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who is a virtual artist in her trade. Her customers range from Mrs. Van Buren (Christianna Nelson,, a white upper-class resident of Park Avenue, to Esther's friend Mayme (Medina Senghore), a free-living prostitute.

Esther has lived a humble life in a rooming house owned by the widowed Mrs. Dickson (MaConnia Chesser) which takes a turn as she starts to receive letters from George Armstrong (Lee Edward Colston II,) a Panama Canal construction worker from Barbados. Being illiterate, Esther's letters in return are written by Van Buren or Mayme. The communication turns into love and Esther and George marry. This simple and affecting moment ends the first act. Act two becomes a soap opera filled with incomplete threads and some implausibility.

The play focuses on the role of women and people of color (the word "colored' pervades the script) at the turn of the 20th century. There were few opportunities for women— espcially black women— except manual labor, marriage, sex trades; and so their aspirations were limited.

Esther has been working since she was nine-years-old and has saved $100.00 every year so that she can buy a beauty parlor. Mrs. Van Buren has a comfortable life within a loveless marriage and Mayme has accepted the liabilities of her profession. Men of minority groups also faced difficult situations. George as a black man faces similar limitations as the women, while a Jewish fabric salesman, Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), who has befriended Esther, is limited by his religious restraints.

The actors bring depth and texture to their roles with intelligence and conviction. As usual, DeGannes is a pleasure to watch as she evolves from a reserved, accepting spinster into a strong and confident woman. Her strength as the character and the actress help carry the show.

Mayme is endearing in Senghore's energetic and vibrant performance. Colston's George evolves from a quiet, affable man into a frustrated and beaten shell. Mrs. Van Buren's condescension toward Esther is played by Nelson with nuance and subtlety while Schrider's Mr. Marks is sensitive and appropriately restrained. Chesser's Mrs. Dickson fittingly displays a maternal protection for her young friend.

The problem with the production is Daniela Varon's direction and the scenic design by Sandra Goldmark. A bed is the central element of the set. With virtually every scene change the bed is remade while it and other pieces of furniture and props are moved by two crew members in costume as well as the actors. There is also an upstage curtain made of various ceiling-to-floor fabrics that open to reveal George in Panama. It takes moments for the curtain to move along a noisy, distracting track and then resettle. These changes take an enormous amount of time hampering the development of the story line.

The play runs for two hours and forty minutes including an intermission; a simpler set would bring the time closer to two hours and the drama of Esther's life would be more effective. Perhaps as the run contnues the changes will be faster or, preferably, modified.

Molly Trainer's period fashionable costumes, the lighting by James Bilnoski and Christopher Peifer's sound design all enhance the dramatic elements of the play. Scott Killian as composer/music director has employed turn-of-the-century ragtime melodies to complement the action of the play.

If you have the patience to sit through the transitions you will be rewarded with a beautifully acted though troublesome script.

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Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Daniela Varon
Cast: MaConnia Chesser (Mrs. Dickson) Lee Edward Colston II (George) Nehassaiu de Gannes (Esther) Christianna Nelson (Mrs. Van Buren) Tommy Schrider (Mr. Marks) Medina Senghore (Mayme)
Scene design: Sandra Goldmark
Costume design: Molly Trainer
Lighting design: James W. Bilnoski
Sound design: Christopher Peifer 
Stage Manager: Tori Sheehan 
Running Time: Two hours, 40 minutes; one intermission
Shakespeare & Co., Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox MA
From 7/20/17; closing 8/13/17
Reviewed by Macey Levin at July 23 performance <

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