Regional Reviews: St. Louis
It's a luxurious spectacle, set in New York City of 1905 in the heyday of ragtime. Equally plush is the acting, under the direction of Gary Wayne Barker. Yes, there are miles of flouncy, ruffled sheers for boudoirs, and lovely draperies and fabrics everywhere, but they begin to seem like the valentines we might send ourselves, on our darkest February 14ththe window-dressing of romance, in the absence of children, or even loving spouses. Credit for all the remarkable stage trimmings goes to the great set designers Peter and Margery Spack.
But the ensemble around Ms. Thompson is exceedingly well appointed in talent and theatrical acumen, with Julie Layton as an upperclass white woman buying fancy corsets from Esther (who is black, and dedicated, and quite selfless). This "intimate apparel" is just part of a whole tour de force of costume design on stage, by Michele Friedman Siler. Her other great contributions include a dazzling gold paisley smoking jacket, various corsets and nightgowns and bloomers, and turn-of-the-century dresses.
But again, all these romantic costumes and the lavish, Barbara Cartland-esque scenery (including a bare-chested hunk) only serve as elegant, ironic counterpoints to these women's slow-motion heartbreak or, at least, as signs of their intended resilience in the matter. Andrea Purnell gives us a performance filled to the brim with bawdy humor and an almost childlike pathos, as a Tenderloin sex worker. Through her and the others, Esther witnesses many lessons on the downside of love.
Her landlady is played by Linda Kennedy with an elegance that seems distant and reflective but also warm and likable, as she tries to translate hard truths into palatable urgings. Chameleonic Jim Butz is Mr. Marks, the fabric salesman who silently yearns to pierce the social barrier between him and Esther. (TalkinBroadway.com readers will correctly guess he's the fiercely talented brother of comic actor Norbert Leo Butz.)
But the bravest acting job of all may be Chauncey Thomas' performance as a laborer who writes Esther poetic letters (just as she's written to him), leading to their matrimony. Strangely, as much exposure as she's had to marital strife, she seems unable to appeal to any of her expert friends for advice about him. Mr. Thomas is an iridescent swain in act one, and all insatiable pride and carnality in act two. Of course he becomes the key to the inevitable conclusion.
Playwright Nottage's characters seem to exist in a learned isolation, forced outside by, or for their lack of, traditional societal behavior. They are ostracized from women who are successful in marriage and childbearing (or in Mr. Marks' case, tied to his own tradition). Unmarried life (or childless life) for them is its own traplike a "food desert" in a poor part of town: a "nurturing desert," you might call it, in which they're trapped without the skills or luck or faith or even mutual trust to escape.
Intimate Apparel may not be an "indictment" of traditional romance, or the people who enjoy it, as much as it is an illustration of how hard we have to work sometimes, just to keep romantic hope alive.
Ending (strategically) right before Valentine's Day, on Sunday February 12, 2017, at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Couer. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the professional union of actors and stage managers in the US.