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Beverly Ndukwu - Photo by Keith Levit

Beverly Ndukwu and Laura Olafson - Photo by Keith Levit

Eric Craig and Beverly Ndukwu - Photo by Keith Levit

Jane Enkin's Review of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's Intimate Apparel

by Jane Enkin, Feb 3, 2019

Intimate Apparel

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

at the Berney Theatre

February 2 – 10, 2019

Delicate like the silks and laces that are so important in the play, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel tells a gentle, sad story. The play emphasizes brief conversations and fleeting gestures. The symbol of hands runs through the play – hands skilled at fine work, hands refined and protected from harsh labour, hands communicating intimacy.

The setting is New York, Lower Manhattan, in 1905. We are first introduced to Esther at her sewing machine – she is a black seamstress making fancy intimate apparel which she fits in her client's boudoirs - a clientele ranging from prostitutes to high society ladies. The gorgeous actor Beverley Ndukwu manages to portray a plain woman in her thirties, dressed simply in a white shirtwaist and grey skirt. She is an independent entrepreneur, saving money for her dream business.

Esther enters a friendship by mail with a Caribbean black man in far off Panama. George is hard to fathom – to what extent are we merely seeing on stage the George that Esther imagines from his letters? Because she cannot read, her correspondence with George is mediated by the reading and writing of two of her clients, black prostitute Mayme and rich white woman Mrs.Van Buren. Dressing these women and sharing with them the details of her relationship with George, Esther deepens her intimacy with both of them. She is also close with her landlady, Mrs. Dickson, who is eager to give Esther advice.

Meanwhile, Esther chats with the salesman in the fabric shop where she buys materials for her ladies. He is an observant Jew, an immigrant from Roumania. The two of them share a delight in the sensuality of fine cloth, and Mr. Marks teases Esther with fabulous stories of the creators of the fabrics. There is an unspoken, almost unexpressed warmth between them, that slowly develops into a love they cannot afford to acknowledge.

Each character projects onto Esther what they want to see. They tell romantic or practical stories to her about her own life. We see glimpses of her iron will and flashes of her impatience and anger, but mostly she is susceptible to all these expectations.

Fine performances are given by everyone in the cast: Ray Strachan as George, Cherissa Richards as Mayme, Jenni Burke as Mrs Dickson, and Eric Craig as Mr. Marks.

Laura Olafson gives an enthralling performance as the boozy, sensual, frustrated rich Mrs.Van Buren, trapped in her gilded cage, expressing her mixture of ironic wit and naive hope.

I have mentioned the race of the characters, because race is one of the aspects that define social position in this clearly delineated time in New York, along with class and religion. For most of the play, these distinctions are simply taken for granted. At a few moments, Esther's discomfort with her position flashes out, but it's quickly suppressed. Ndukwu's subtle performance skillfully shows these moments of intensity and the restraint she must exercise to get on in the world.



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