INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage, directed by Philip Akin (Obsidian). At Berkeley Street Upstairs (26 Berkeley). To February 3. $15-$30. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNN
Intimate Apparel looks at the life of a black seamstress in 1905 New York, caught between her comfortable though hard-won independence and the desire to have a man in her life. Lynn Nottage’s play is full of fascinating characters despite an occasionally melodramatic narrative.
Esther (Raven Dauda) moves easily between high and low society, white and black, stitching undergarments for the elegant Mrs. Van Buren (Carly Street) as well as Esther’s prostitute friend Mayme (Lisa Berry). Both help her correspond with George (Kevin Hanchard), a worker on the Panama Canal who expresses a matrimonial interest in the nervous, tentative Esther.
Adeptly weaving personal histories into the story as Esther moves between worlds, Nottage’s script offers a wide canvas, and Obsidian Theatre’s production, designed by Tamara Marie Kucheran to suggest the rich variety of this bustling city, literally fills the broad Berkeley stage. Her splendid costumes, some plush and others plain, give further vividness to the period drama.
Though the show takes a while to gather steam, its strong cast brings to life the relationships at the heart of the script. Raven goes from reclusive worker to passionate wife, though with a touch of shyness when she invites a man into her bed. Berry’s earthy Mayme captures the tired, angry regularity of her business with uncaring johns, and her scenes with Dauda vibrate with genuine compassion.
Street’s stylish, bored Park Avenue wife, neglected by her husband, moves inexorably toward tragedy. It’s only in Esther that the character finds someone who will listen to her, and she holds onto the seamstress with a desperate grip.
Hanchard’s George – cleverly kept in shadow for the play’s first act, for he exists more in Esther’s imagination than reality – becomes an unexpected force, charming and unreliable, in the second act.
Rounding out the performers are Marium Carvell, who has powerful moments as Esther’s busybody landlady, and Alex Poch-Goldin as a cloth merchant who offers Esther some warm though unspoken tenderness.
Not every emotional episode resonates fully, but director Philip Akin offers some fine moments, including a tableau at the end of the first act that captures the crazy-quilt nature of Esther’s relationships, as disparate as the actual quilt that plays a part in her dreams of the future.