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January 12, 2006

Theatre Review: Intimate Apparel

Starring Tiffany Adams, Denise Cormier, Perri Gaffney, Erik LaRay Harvey, Joe Hickey and Gwendolyn Mulamba. Directed by Timothy Bond. An Actors Theatre of Louisville production. Continues through Jan. 28. For tickets or more info, call 584-1205 or visit www.actorstheatre.org.

The corset, an ever-present undergarment in the early 1900s, cinched the waist while squeezing the hips and breasts out. It’s an apt symbol of the era’s social climate, a time in which propriety reigned and “undesirable” emotions were bridled, leaving them bubbling dangerously just beneath the refined veneer that high society folk worked so hard to craft. And yet, bound emotions, just as the flesh, are determined to overflow somewhere.

Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” revolves around Esther (Gwendolyn Mulamba), a 35-year-old who makes lingerie even as she nears spinsterhood. For 17 years she’s lived in a boardinghouse full of an ever-rotating supply of girls who quickly marry while she remains single, awkward and homely, a physical feat pulled off flawlessly by the gorgeous Mulamba. Esther’s world is inhabited by a number of characters for whom she sews: Mrs. Van Buren (Denise Cormier), a lonely and increasingly depressed Fifth Avenue lady on a downward spiral; Mayme (Tiffany Adams), a downtown prostitute who’s the churchgoing Esther’s best friend; and Mr. Marks (Joe Hickey), a Jewish fabric dealer with whom Esther shares an unspoken bond. When a Barbadian laborer on the Panama Canal, George (Erik LaRay Harvey), begins a courtship with Esther through letters, her future takes on a different bent.

The play hinges on relationships, and there is such a dearth of emotional connection between the actors that important, climatic scenes that should crackle with tension — one including a kiss between Mrs. Van Buren and Esther, another involving a revelation Esther has pertaining to Mayme and another concerning an embrace between George and Esther — are so unsatisfying it was as if a balloon had simply deflated when it should’ve popped.

The characters’ lives are intimately intertwined, yet the actors seem to have barely met each other before the show began its run. Yes, these are polished, professional actors with impressive credentials and training (although, on a pettier note, the Southern accents leave much to be desired — did director Timothy Bond really give his nod of approval?). But with the exception of Hickey, who delivers a consistent, delicately nuanced performance, the actors only occasionally hit their strides, proving that even the best play — and best actors — falls short when the actors fail to invest their characters emotionally in each other.

Interesting are the observations regarding both societal and innate pressure on the female to find male companionship in marriage, even if it leaves her unsatisfied. Esther claims a dull life, primarily due to having no exciting suitors, but her life is peopled with fascinating characters from vastly different walks of life. Mrs. Van Buren buys Esther’s risqué corsets in an effort to elicit affection from the husband who spits in her face when she can’t get pregnant. Wedding advice from Esther’s boardinghouse mistress, Mrs. Dickson (Perri Gaffney), is, “Your duty is to keep his member firmly at home,” prompting Esther to uncharacteristically don lipstick and one of her own intimate creations in an attempt to do just that.

While Esther’s question, “Do you think there’s something wrong with a woman alone?,” is answered by Nottage resoundingly by the time of the play’s conclusion, the journey there is full of poignant grappling and heartbreak.

BY REBECCA HAITHCOAT
leo@leoweekly.com