Lush Characters Highlight Steel River’s INTIMATE APPAREL

by Walter Bender
Carly Fried (Mrs. Van Buren) and Natasha Murray (Esther Mills)

Carly Fried (Mrs. Van Buren) and Natasha Murray (Esther Mills) in Steel River’s INTIMATE APPAREL

The latest offering from Steel River Playhouse in Pottstown (formerly Tri-PAC) is the multi-award-winning play by Lynn Nottage, INTIMATE APPAREL. The play is set in New York City in 1905, and tells the story of Esther Mills, a 35 year old African-American woman who travels from North Carolina to New York to pursue her dreams, becoming an independent woman as a seamstress.

Esther is portrayed by Natasha Murray as a very strong, self-assured woman who has a goal and aggressively follows her dream. She excels at her craft, especially in the design and creation of intimate apparel. Her discretion and gentle nature make her a confidante to both wealthy white women and prostitutes. Her frugality leads her to purchase her garments at a small shop owned by Mr. Marks (Steve Carrasco), a strict Jewish merchant with whom she also has a strong friendship and also shares an unspoken and forbidden affection.

Esther lives in a rooming house owned by Mrs. Dickson (Faye O. Wooten), a kindly mother figure to all the girls she boards. Esther lives and works in an upstairs room in the boarding house, and does little other than work, refusing to date any of the men who come calling at the boarding house. Her routine and her world are altered by the arrival of a letter from George Armstrong (Carlo Campbell), a Caribbean man working as a laborer digging the Panama Canal. Esther is cannot read or write, but her client Mrs. Van Buren (Carly Fried) reads her the letter and Esther is charmed by his simplicity and passion. With Mrs. Van Buren’s help, Esther writes back to George, and through their letters they become closer, culminating with George proposing to Esther. What seems to be a dream come true turns sour for Esther, as her new husband is not what he appeared to be, taking all of Esther’s savings and cheating on her with Mayme ( Monique Mosee), the house pianist and prostitute, and Esther must rebuild her life and dreams.

Natasha Murray (as Esther Mills) and Monique Mosee (as Mayme) in INTIMATE APPAREL

Natasha Murray (as Esther Mills) and Monique Mosee (as Mayme) in INTIMATE APPAREL

The performances in this production are all first-rate. Murray is spot on as the quiet yet strong Esther. The strength of her character is wonderful to see as she goes from the woman fighting the criticism of everyone for her unusual courtship to the resolve with which she settles the discord in her life. Campbell gives a very fine performance as George. The perceived sincerity of his letters (which he narrates) belie the scoundrel he turns out to be. Fried is also delightful as Mrs. Van Buren, adding a subtle back story to her character, and makes the audience empathize with her situation. Wooten (Mrs. Dickson) is the jovial matronly boarding house owner, whose opinionated ways do not diminish her wisdom. Carrasco does well as Mr. Marks, giving an understated performance. Finally, Mosee as Mayme is boisterous and engaging.

The production is staged in the Newberry Loft at Steel River Playhouse, which is the upstairs area reserved for more intimate productions. There are no frills, no special lighting (and in fact, no lighting at all aside from the general area lighting), and the music is handled by a boom box from the wing area. This does not diminish the production, however, as the material and the performances make you forget any “whipped cream.” The only issue I had with the production is the length…over two and a half hours with intermission for a 2-act show is over-long. Part of this is the script…the first act bogs down a bit half-way through…but the actors at times also take their longer speeches and get a bit over-dramatic. There was a point in the first act where after a scene the audience applauded, feeling that it had to be the end of the act, only to discover that it continued for another ten minutes.

Length of the production aside, this was a wonderful night at the theatre. The performances are more than worth the trip. This is a limited-run production, so don’t delay.

A play by Lynn Nottage
February 1-10, 2013
Steel River Playhouse
245 E. High Street
Pottstown, PA 19464

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