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Eric Craig as Mr. Marks and Beverley Ndukwu as Esther in a scene from "Intimate Apparel"

(Posted Feb. 3) Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
Set in 1905 New York City, “Intimate Apparel” tells the fascinating story of a black seamstress by the name of Esther who is wonderfully gifted at her craft, yet frustrated over her still being single while in her mid-30s.

 

 

 

This latest production of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre is marvelously well done. With a first-rate cast of six actors, “Intimate Apparel” takes its name from the undergarments that Esther has become so proficient at producing for a variety of clients, including a prostitute and a wealthy society matron.
(It’s still so hard to conceive of the lengths to which women of  that period  went to get into the kinds of corsets they used to wear.)
While living in a boarding house run by a very sympathetic landlady by the name of Mrs. Dickson, Esther begins an exchange of letters with someone named George, who says he is working on building the Panama Canal. Esther, who is illiterate, arranges to have someone respond to George’s letters and eventually he proposes marriage. Considering that Esther is the last of seven women who had been living in the boarding house who remains unmarried, one can well understand her anxiousness to accept the invitation - even from someone whom she has never met.
But, intertwined in Esther’s life is her relationship with a Chassidic cloth merchant by the name of Mr. Marks. While the two have an obvious fondness for one another, they both realize that nothing can possibly ensue from the quite proper relationship that they studiously maintain - despite the obvious desire they have for one another.
As played by newcomer to Winnipeg Eric Craig, Mr. Marks has an accent that couldn’t help but remind me of the Count from Sesame Street but, when you find out that Marks is of Romanian ancestry – well, I suppose the accent does ring true.
The play is very much a women’s empowerment tale – even if it is set well over a century ago. Apparently the story is based partly on the playwright Lynn Nottage’s great-grandmother’s own experiences in early 20th century New York. As an interesting aside, WJT artistic director Ari Weinberg told members of the audience following the play (which I saw Sunday afternoon, February 3) that Nottage is the only female playwright ever to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for playwriting (although “Intimate Apparel” is not one of those two plays).
Esther may be illiterate, but she is very perceptive – and ambitious to one day start her own beauty parlor for black women. Played by Beverley Ndukwu, who is a Winnipegger, Esther carries herself with dignity throughout, even when she is often the object of some ribald exchanges with prostitute Mayme (played with great sauciness by Cherissa Richards) and southern belle Mrs. Van Buren (played by the multitalented Laura Olafson).
As the play moves on we see how each female character has been dealt with badly by men, yet they all remain determined to persevere rather than wallow in self-pity.
I won’t spoil the plot by revealing what ultimately happens – except to say that if anyone is expecting there to be some kind of romance develop between Esther and Mr. Marks – well, that would be hopelessly unrealistic.

“Intimate Apparel” is on until Feb. 10 at the Berney Theatre. For tickets call (204) 477-7478.

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