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Playwright Lynn Nottage wrote “Intimate Apparel” to fill a void in her own family history. Set in lower Manhattan in 1905, it is the story of an African-American seamstress who makes lacy lingerie for society women and whores.
But the production, beautifully mounted by the Theatre at Monmouth, is so much more than that. It is a tale of love, friendship, hopes, dreams, and the reality that women and men of color faced at the dawn of the 20th century.
Esther (Amber Baldwin) lives in a boarding house that is owned by Mrs. Dickson (Tessa Martin), who inherited it from her husband. Esther shares a passion for fine fabric and lace with Mr. Marks (Robert Najarian), a Jewish merchant she buys cloth from.
The seamstress has been saving for many years to open a beauty parlor but is fast approaching spinsterhood. With the help of a white customer, Mrs. Van Buren (Caitlin Duffy), Esther begins writing to George (Lawrence James), a native of Barbados digging the Panama Canal. Their marriage takes its toll on everyone.
As each scene unfolds, director Josiah Davis peels back another layer of Nottage’s play as if it were an onion. Her script is as intricate as the Valenciennes’ Lace that Esther uses to trim bodices and wedding gowns. The director handles this story lovingly, as if it came from his own family. A playwright cannot ask for more than that.
Baldwin’s Esther is a quiet woman who works almost constantly toward her dream despite society trying to extinguish the passion inside her. The actress slowly and precisely lets Esther’s ambition and disillusions rise to the surface and wraps them around the character like a tattered shawl. It is a bravura performance that burns itself into theatergoers’ brains and is not soon forgotten.
As George, Lawrence James gives a fine performance as the romantic who becomes the man demanding Esther give up her dream to fund his own. Nottage seems to have written George as a stereotypical “bad husband,” but James gives the character more depth than that, so the audience may not forgive his behavior but understands it.
Sometimes two actors whose characters are supposed to have spark fizzle onstage. Not so with Baldwin and Najarian. They almost set the stage ablaze. Esther and Mr. Marks’ mutual love of fine fabric, their shared desire to step away from the expectations of their respective cultures and the way they must hold their passion in check show they have more in common with each other than those they are supposed to care for.
When Mr. Marks unfurls a bolt of blue fabric and lets it waft across the stage for Esther, it is a beautiful gift and a visually stunning act of seduction. This much electricity between actors is rare even when their characters are supposed to have it. Baldwin and Najarian set all of Monmouth aglow in these roles.
Duffy, Martin and Kara Green (Mayme) complete the ensemble with complex and layered performances.
Technically, “Intimate Apparel” is one of Monmouth’s finest productions. Meg Anderson’s set, Michelle Handley’s costumes and Jennifer Fok’s lighting design weave a sepia-toned window into the past that illuminates these characters’ lives as well as Nottage’s words do. Anderson’s use of a box on one side of the Cumston Hall stage as Mr. Marks fabric store is brilliant. Rarely has one of the boxes been put to such a fine purpose.
The Theatre at Monmouth is marking it 50th season this summer. ”Intimate Apparel” is a remarkable tribute to its past and its future as one of Maine premiere theater companies.
“Intimate Apparel” will run through Aug. 16 at the Theatre at Monmouth in Cumston Hall. For more information, visit theatreatmonmouth.org or call 207-933-9999.