Monday, February 22, 2010


Carly Street as Mrs. Van Buren and Raven Dauda as Esther
Photo: David Hou

The Canadian Stage Company has struck gold in its presentation of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. They get credit for choosing the play and the company that produced it. The rest of the kudos goes to the Obsidian Theatre whose production they have borrowed. It is theatre at its best.

The initial credit goes to playwright Lynn Nottage for a beautifully constructed and moving play that has drama, humour and sheer humanity. The play had its premiere in Baltimore in 2003 and was first produced in Canada by the Obsidian Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre two years ago.

The play takes place in New York’s garment district in the early years of the twentieth century. It revolves around the life of 35-year old seamstress named Esther (Raven Dauda) whose special talent is making intimate undergarments for the upper crust.

Esther is single and living in a rooming house. She has five relationships in the play and Nottage examines all five with humour and drama. Mrs. Dickson (Marium Carvell) is Esther’s landlady and she may be nosey but in the end she is deeply humane and proves to be a real friend.

Esther is befriended by a lonely Fifth Avenue woman who is unhappily married. The friendship develops haltingly and incompletely because of racial and class differences. In the end the desperate Mrs. Van Buren (Carly Street) reaches out to Esther for sexual intimacy but that is impossible to consummate and the relationship ends there.

Even more moving is Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks (Alex Poch-Goldin), a Jewish fabric vendor. Esther and Mr. Marks are worlds apart but they also have a great deal in common. Because he is a devout Jew, she cannot even touch him nor can he touch her. But he is a lonely man who is waiting for his wife to come from Romania. It is an arranged marriage and he has never seen his prospective bride. Esther’s and Mr. Marks’s friendship and attraction for each other grows but Nottage wisely leaves us to decide whether the racial and religious chasm that separates the two lonely people can be bridged.

Mayme (Lisa Berry) is a hooker but Esther treats her like a friend. That will not stop her from betraying Esther. Mayme will prove to be a whore at heart as well as body.

The most important relationship in Esther’s life is with George (Kevin Hanchard). Initially, they “correspond” with each other. He is in Panama working on the Canal and they write affecting letters to each other and they fall in love. He comes to New York and they marry. Esther’s dream of finding love is fulfilled; her friendships are intact and her work and expertise at making fine underclothes have provided her with a small nest egg.

There is a hilarious honeymoon scene as the two awkwardly begin to consummate their marriage. But Esther’s world starts unraveling almost from the moment that her honeymoon is over. George does not turn out to be the husband she was looking for. In the end, he takes her money, he takes up with Mayme and Esther’s world crumbles.

Philip Akin directs a superb cast in this marvelous piece of theatre. Raven Dauda is outstanding as the decent, hardworking woman who wants to improve her lot. She knows fabrics and how to sew. What she does not know is how to read and her letters to George are written for her and of course she cannot read his. George pays someone to write his letters.

Kevin Hanchard’s George starts out as the soul of decency but ends up being a creep. Nottage does not paint him in monochrome because he is the victim of rampant racism when he tries to get a job. In the end however he is the villain of the piece.

Alex Poch-Goldin is wonderfully affecting as the traditional Jew who cannot even touch another woman but who breaks away from tradition in the face of friendship and love. Maybe, just maybe, human contact is more important than faith and tradition and Poch-Goldin does a marvelous job in the role.

Akin brings everything together to give us an outstanding night at the theatre.


Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage opened on February 11 and will run until March 6, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

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