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Intimate Apparel
I stay on here, I'll turn to dust one day, get swept up and released into the garden without notice. — Esther
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Esther), Tasso Feldman (Mr. Marks)
Some of us retain fond and vivid memories of Lynn Nottage's beautiful play Intimate Apparel from the time it opened in New York in 2004 earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination for drama that year. Since then Nottage has won the coveted Pulitzer Prize twice, for Ruined and most recently for Sweat a nominee for the Tony Award for Best New Play and currently on Broadway. Maybe some will also remember that the original production of Intimate Apparel starred Viola Davis in giving a performance that helped to launch her award-winning career path in both films and stage. (Curtainup's review ).

But let's move on to the present and the McCarter Theatre and more specifically to Lower Manhattan in 1905 where the play takes place. This splendid production with sterling performances under the direction of Jade King Carrollis one you won't want to miss. Carroll more than keeps the faith with the author's heart-warming and heart-stirring drama about Esther (a vibrant and bracing performance by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) a 35 year-old African-American woman determined to find a place for herself beyond the world she has known sitting behind a sewing machine.

Carroll's direction and staging reveal the action of this intimate play as distinctly separated pieces of a puzzle. These have been stunningly lighted by designer Nicole Pearce within an impressive two-level unit setting by Alexis Distler that has been designed to accommodate various locations with imaginative specificity.

The play is filled with passion and a compassion for the way that Esther almost unwittingly finds herself in a love match or maybe two. But what is it really that will free her from her life in the boarding house where she has lived for the past eighteen years? The play moves spiritedly along in two acts with Act II resonating with the kinds of surprises and disclosures that insure that our interest never wanes.

What surprises Esther is discovering how prayers are often answered in the most circuitous of ways. Secure in her talent for designing intimate apparel for customers as well as for the women who reside in the rooming house, Esther has little confidence that she will find a husband. Her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Brenda Pressley) has other ideas and is more than willing to help. Considering the scarcity of local prospects, Esther is, nevertheless, pretty vocal about what she is willing to compromise in the romance department.

Esther hopes that her years of savings will someday allow her to open a beauty parlor. She sews most regularly for Mrs. Van Buren (well-played by Kate MacCluggage) a white emotionally-conflicted society woman locked into an unhappy marriage. How curious and sad it is that Mrs. Van Buren fills the void in her life with alcohol by drinking and reading Esther's correspondence between her and a construction worker on the Panama Canal.

This is where George (a terrific and virile Galen Kane), a native of Barbados enters the picture as his gentle love-making and wooing through his letters seems to be just what Esther needs. His eloquent perhaps a little too florid prose impresses her enough to seal a commitment to marriage.

The play nicely integrates two more significant characters who play a part and become influences in Esther's future. Surprisingly close to virginal Esther is Mayme (lustrous performance by Jessica Frances Dukes), an empathetic prostitute for whom Esther designs intimate apparel. A nice touch includes Mayme banging out ragtime melodies on the piano in her room. Most tenderly integrated is the relationship between Esther and Mr. Marks (a warmly human demeanor by Tasso Feldman) a Jewish fabric merchant. In a quite remarkable way, a bond is created between them as is an unspoken attraction, one that fosters a romantic supposition that the playwright builds upon with extraordinary sensitivity.

The play also deals poignantly with the pain of the disillusioned Esther's disintegrating marriage to a man who may not be all that he has claimed, but then Esther has her own secrets to reveal. At its most profound, Intimate Apparel beautifully considers the marriage of souls as it does that of bodies. It also considers the social and racial barriers of working class people in its time. It was inspired by Nottage's great grandmother's life as a seamstress. Inspired is also the word to best describe this play.

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Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Esther), Brenda Pressley (Mrs. Dickson), Kate MacCluggage (Mrs. Van Buren), Tasso Feldman (Mr. Marks), Jessica Frances Dukes (Mayme), Galen Kane (George)
Set Design: Alexis Distler
Costume Design: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce
Sound Design: Karin Graybash
Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Mintz
Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.
(609) 258 - 2787
Performances: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday matinee at 3 pm and Sunday matinee at 2 pm.
From 05/05/17 Opened 05/12/17 Ends 06/04/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on Saturday matinee performance 05/13/17

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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