— Daren Herbert and Marsha Regis in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Intimate Apparel. Photo by David Cooper.
Custom-designed corsets and a subtly complex tale of love, work, disappointment and endurance comprise the winning formula for the Arts Club’s latest offering, Intimate Apparel. John Cooper’s handsome, finely acted production makes Vancouver’s first exposure to African-American playwright Lynn Nottage a memorable one.
Nottage tells the story of Esther (Marcie T. House in a beautifully understated performance), daughter of an ex-slave, who has emigrated from the deep South and works as a seamstress in New York City in 1905. A maker of specially designed corsets, she is saving for her dream of opening a beauty parlour. Plain-looking and single at 35, Esther seems destined to provide elegant undergarments only for other women’s weddings until she begins corresponding with George (Daren Herbert), a Caribbean labourer helping to dig the Panama Canal. When George comes to New York, Esther’s life takes more than a few twists and turns.
Her other relationships further complicate things. Esther’s landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Lesley Ewen), seems like a stereotypical busybody at first but turns out to be much more. Her rich, unhappily married white customer Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Cummer) takes a special interest in Esther with unexpected results. Her friendship with Mayme (Marsha Regis), a good-natured prostitute who plays lively ragtime piano, becomes increasingly tangled.
Esther’s most interesting entanglement is with Mr. Marks, a Chasidic Jew who sells her the fabric for her corsets. Each of her visits to his shop becomes a rich, lovely dance of subtext and repression with much more said through looks and gesture than through their words. Jonathon Young proves again that he’s one of our very best actors, his Marks beaming joy and vitality through a long beard and black clothes. House matches him step for step, Esther’s stolidity almost but never entirely melting in his presence.
I would have liked Marks’ shop to be not so far upstage on Pam Johnson’s good-looking, functional set with its five locations, to be able to watch those two up close. But downstage centre is another fascinating dance—where Esther and George play out their life together. George is a puzzle: articulate, suave, angry, charming. Is he good guy or con man? Lover or leech? Herbert is terrific at keeping us off balance, and he and House have a sweet, angry, painful chemistry.
Alison Green has designed an array of finely detailed corsets and Doug Balfour’s period music provides the superficially happy-go-lucky soundtrack for a people whose lives are scarred by racism but just keep on keepin’ on.