Blog Review: Intimate Apparel at Arizona Theatre Company

Review: Intimate Apparel at Arizona Theatre Company

By Herbert Paine. Originally published on

One of the great and all too infrequent joys of being a theatre critic is to happen upon a show where all the stars converge to create a stellar and commanding theatrical experience. Such a moment occurred during opening weekend of Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel.

The play, directed sensitively and with keen attention to detail by Oz Scott, embodies and integrates the best elements of professional staging: Alexander Dodge’s intricately designed set, embellished with an explosion of colorful fabrics, Karen Perry’s beautifully patterned apparel, well-placed incidental music, and Victor En Yu Tan’s mood lighting. 

Above all are the inspired performances of the six-member ensemble, gathered as intimate counterparts in the story of Esther.

It is the turn of the 20th century ~ a time of invention and innovation, expressionism in the arts, and the early days of the Great Migration of blacks northward. The energy of the Age of Modernity was palpable in New York City as it was in other places like Panama where ground was broken for a new waterway called the Big Ditch.

Set within this maelstrom of change, Esther, an African-American woman of modest means, fair countenance, and large dreams plies her trade as a seamstress, sewing undergarments for the rich and infamous, and squirreling away every hard-earned dollar into the seams of her bedroom quilt. She, like the metropolis in which she resides, is about reinventing herself. Her goal is to have enough money to set up her own business ~ a beauty salon where black women can be treated like royalty.

In her mid-thirties, her aspirations no longer extend to marriage…that is, not until she receives an unsolicited letter from a Caribbean laborer in Panama. Thus commences a correspondence with one George Armstrong that culminates in an offer of marriage.

That’s just the first act in what the playwright has called a lyrical meditation on one woman’s loneliness and desire. Nottage’s vision in this regard is fulfilled by Tracy N. Bonner’s tour de force performance as Esther. Ms. Bonner brings immense depth and gravitas to her role and strikes perfect balances in shaping a character that is possessed of humility, dignity, and tenacity. All these attributes will be sorely tested as Esther later discovers that all her dreams must await another day.

Esther’s test comes at the hands of Mr. Armstrong whose expectations of America as the land of opportunity and of Esther as a bride are foiled. Corey Jones plays the role with both a palpable sense of vulnerability and a ferocity born of disappointment. He is a powerful on-stage presence with a voice that bellows his hurt and anger.

The chemistry then between Bonner and Jones is electrifying…and, as the bonds between them fray, their distancing is heartbreaking. 

If the play is mainly about Esther, it contains as well a narrative about conventions and social relationships or, perhaps, more accurately, the barriers between relationships. To this end, the playwright has crafted a supporting cast of unique characters, each of whom is exceptionally well portrayed.

There is Esther’s wise and protective landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Saundra McClain) who, from beginning to end, provides certainty and sanctuary when the chips are down.

Reflecting the diversity of Esther’s clientele are Mayme, the fun-loving, piano-playing prostitute (a lusty Sarah Hollis) and the frustrated socialite Mrs. Van Buren (an ebullient Dawn Cantwell), both of whom pose as Esther’s confidantes until they’re not.

One of the most compelling relationships in the drama ~ and one that carries a heavy load of emotion ~ is that between Esther and Mr. Marks (Aaron Cammack), an Orthodox Jewish tailor. With each encounter, as Esther collects the fine fabrics that he has prepared for her, the tenderness of their interactions suggests a possibility that simply cannot be fulfilled. Cammack delivers some of the sweetest and most endearing moments of the play.

The bottom line: It is the great achievement of ATC’s ensemble, directed by Oz Scott, that Lynn Nottage’s artistic vision is vividly and fully realized. A must-see production.