‘Intimate Apparel’ at CCBC Catonsville

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This semester, CCBC Catonsville’s theatre department has taken on Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel. Set in the New York City of 1905, the play tells the story of Esther, an African American seamstress struggling to find love and achieve independence on her own terms.

 Takira Stokes (Esther). Photo courtesy of CCBC.
Takira Stokes (Esther). Photo courtesy of CCBC Catonsville.

Esther, played by Takira Stokes, has been working as a seamstress, creating lingerie for women all over New York City, servicing high society women and prostitutes all the same. She dreams of opening a salon, where black women can come and be pampered the same way white women are; she’s even saved a small fortune during her years in the city to finance that dream. But Esther’s been alone a long time – she’s just turned 35 as the play begins – and she fears that her chance for love has passed her by. Enter George Armstrong (Olawale Esan), a laborer working on the Panama Canal, who begins writing Esther letters. Illiterate, Esther turns to her friends and clientele for help communicating with George, a course of action which will impact her relationships with them all.

Tom Colonna directs a talented young cast of students. Takira Stokes does a serviceable job as Esther. Her Esther feels a little flat, especially compared with the other colorful characters she interacts with. Nonetheless, she exudes the sweetness Esther is renowned for, and carries the quiet dignity her character needs.

Mrs. Dickson, the widowed owner of the boarding house where Esther lives, is played by Tierra Stone. Her performance was wonderful, dispensing plenty of unsolicited advice to Esther with the familiarity bred from old, enduring friendship.

Elizabeth Tybush plays Mrs. Van Buren, the white, high society woman who confides in Esther of her marital woes, and finds great comfort in helping her write to George. Tybush is in turns vivacious and tragic as Van Buren. She has a wonderful, devil-may-care attitude that belies her heartache and dissatisfaction.

Charles Gearhart plays Mr. Marks, a Hasidic shopkeeper Esther buys from. Mr. Marks and Esther share a love of fabric, and their conversations to that end reveal much about their personalities and their feelings for each other. There’s little chemistry between Stokes and Gearhart, but they do display an obvious affection and there’s a meaningful friendship between their characters

Mayme the prostitute is played by Kezia Cornish. She’s one of Esther’s closest friends, despite their differing lives and occupations. She’s jaded yet hopeful, and her relationship with Esther experiences probably the most interesting arc in the play.

Takira Stokes (Esther). and Olawale Esan (George). Photo courtesy of CCBC.
Takira Stokes (Esther). and Olawale Esan (George). Photo courtesy of CCBC Catonsville.

Olawale Esan plays George Armstrong, the laborer and Esther’s pen-pal paramour. George embodies the romantic ideal for Esther; a handsome stranger with a gentlemanly manner, working a hard and dangerous job in a wild, distant land, who relies on the sweet words of a beautiful lady to see him through. Esan gives a powerful performance, first as that romantic ideal, then as George, the man himself.

My one critique is that, at one point or another in the play, everyone rushed through some of their lines. Though the performances overall are well done, many several scenes could have been made even better had the actors paused to breathe and let their lines sink in. This is particularly true in the second act, where certain moments feel robbed of their full emotional resonance by the actors rush to get their lines out and finish. Intimate Apparel is a great play; well-written, painstakingly researched, and full of emotional turmoil for the actors to sink their teeth into. But those emotions are as much about what isn’t said as what is, and these young actors need to embrace the silence sometimes.

The set is beautiful. Four platforms divide the stage into different rooms. Esther’s bedroom is down stage center, centered on either side by Mrs. Van Buren’s boudoir and Mayme’s room at the saloon. Upstage are Mr. Marks fabric shop and George’s room in Panama. It’s well-designed and beautifully dressed, designed by G. Maurice Conn and built by CCBC students. Conn also designed the lighting, which is captured and enhanced by fabric hung behind the set pieces. James J. Fasching  designed the period costumes, which were provided by A.T. Jones and Son. Frank Tybush was responsible for sound design, much of which involved saloon piano tunes.

The staff and students of CCBC have mounted a wonderful show. The production values are top-notch, and the actors, though still growing, demonstrate great reserves of talent.

Intimate Apparel is a feather in the cap of CCBC’s theater department and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Intimate Apparel is playing through November 9, 2015 at CCBC Catonsville, Center for the Arts Theatre – 800 South Rolling Road, in Catonsville, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443)-840-2787, or purchase them online.

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