Multi-Layered “Intimate Apparel” Is A Beautiful Moment In Time At New Jewish

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

With layers rich in text and sub-text, Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” takes the stage at The New Jewish Theatre and a strong cast and direction make it a heart-wrenching evening that will leave you breathless, crying and with strong feelings for all of the characters she has created.

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Linda Kennedy as Mrs. Dickson and Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Nottage has based her lead character, Esther, on her grandmother. A seamstress in 1905 New York, she has struggled for years while saving up her money to open a beauty parlor for black patrons. She sees the girls in her rooming house meet and marry while, at 35, she still has hope to make that dream come true for her, but it doesn’t appear likely. Until a friend who has ventured South hooks her up with a “pen pal” who is helping to build the Panama Canal. After a whirlwind courtship, she agrees to marry him sight unseen- even though she is illiterate and has been assisted in her correspondence by one of her rich, white clients as well as her friend who is a lady of the evening.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Chauncy Thomas as George in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Things take an unexpected twist as the second act turns from euphoria and innocence to a much darker story. As the tale unfolds, you connect with all of the people in her life, including the Jewish fabric store owner who seems infatuated with her. Perhaps one of the most telling notes in the play is the use of overhead kirons that announce each scene- at the end of the first act and the second as well, a flash indicates a photo is taken and both the marriage picture and a photo of her return to her sewing are described as “unidentified couple” and “unidentified seamstress.” So, as involved as we are in all the stories that open up to us, history reveals their anonymity.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Andrea Purnell as Mayme in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Vivid performances highlight the show starting with a fragile and touching turn by Jacqueline Thompson as Esther. Like a delicate flower, she sways to please whoever enters her life until circumstances change her and, eventually, bring her a new resolve. Chauncy Thomas has returned to the St. Louis scene after having success on the East Coast and brings an epic portrayal of George- the Barbados native who woos and wins Esther sight unseen. He masterfully tackles the changing and challenging moods of the character and maintains a most difficult dialect as well.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther gets advice from Julie Layton as Mrs. Van Buren in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

One of the grande dames of local theatre, Linda Kennedy, gives richness and texture to the nosy landlady, Mrs. Dickson with those special touches in both movement and voice inflection that define any character she plays. Andrea Purnell brings that hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold vulnerability to her role as Mayme and Julie Layton is perfectly proper as Esther’s rich client, Mrs. Van Buren. Both ladies- at opposite ends of the economic and social spectrum- come to the assistance of and then play a major part in Esther’s enormous change of circumstances during the course of the play.

Jim Butz rounds out the cast as the Jewish fabric store owner, Mr. Marks. His shy, almost stilted flirtation with Esther is obvious as he can sense her moods and feels true concern for what he knows must be going on in her life. His subtle performance includes two similar moments as Esther leaves his shop and he is stopped in his tracks trying to wonder what has happened after their near moments of intimacy. His stance and the expression on his face both times say so much as the scene fades to black.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther admires the fabric shown to her by Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the delicate and seasoned touch of Gary Wayne Barker as director of “Intimate Apparel.” The audience can really detect the director’s hand in this play as it moves from moment to moment, crisis to crisis with tension and raw emotion. An outstanding scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack also complements the story as the stage is divided into several playing areas with curtains that either move from side to side or up and down- thus keeping the theme of Esther’s profession of sewing intimate apparel for ladies of wealth. It gives the whole play a feeling of intimacy as you’re focused on small areas of the stage at a time with a centerpiece of a bedroom that serves as various truly intimate areas as needed.

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Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in his shop during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Sean Savoie’s lighting design adds to that intimacy as do the several wonderful costume pieces of Michele Friedman Siler as they speak with a refinement to Esther’s profession. This play is remarkable in both the broad scope of the story and the intimate moments that surround the characters. Lynn Nottage has crafted a beautiful piece that speaks to generations and cultures over the years. Call the New Jewish Theatre at 314-442-3283 and see this wonderfully evocative story, “Intimate Apparel,” playing through February 12th.

 

 

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