From the opening of Intimate Apparel, a play by Lynn Nottage, to the very end, the audience is captivated by and emotionally invested in the story of Esther, an African American seamstress who specializes in making intimate apparel and keeping the intimate secrets of her customers. Esther, played by Zahra Ruffin ’17, is an easy character to sympathize with, as she has lived a simple, modest life, saving every penny she could to one day open a beauty salon for women of color. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, a visiting director who last directed Big Love in The Moore in 2013, Intimate Apparel is a wonderful theatrical experience that will move you, possibly to tears.
Ruffin gives an astonishing performance in Intimate Apparel, never leaving the stage for more than a very quick costume change. Generally, it can be difficult for a lead actor to stand out when they are on stage through a whole show, especially with a cast like this one, where each actor brings his or her own energy and talent to the scenes. However, Ruffin’s performance is breathtaking and heart-wrenching, and just as she never leaves the stage, the audience’s admiration never leaves her. Through her, we experience every emotion, from love and excitement to grief and despair. This is Ruffin’s last Mainstage performance at Dartmouth, and it should not be missed.
Throughout the play, we see Esther’s world change as she falls in love with George Armstrong (Gabriel Jenkinson ’20), a man she has never met, who writes to her while working on the Panama Canal. While all of the cast does phenomenal work with accents, Gabriel’s accent is impressively believable. As we catch glimpses of life in Panama through the letter exchange, we too grow attached to the man behind the letters.
We experience the exchange of romantic letters through the eyes of Esther’s clients and friends, who help the seamstress write to her penpal. From the elite, white Mrs. Van Buren (Kelly Faudet ’17), to her friend Mayme (Nashe Mutenda ’20), a prostitute, to her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Jovanay Carter ’19), we hear every perspective on the unlikely romance, and grow attached to each character in their own way, as each brings her own particular charm to the piece. Mutenda gives a brilliant performance: from her over-the-top personality, to her impeccable vocals and skills at the piano, it’s easy to overlook her loose morals and root for Mayme to be happy.
The play explores the world of the forbidden in a fresh way: forbidden love, limitations imposed by race and, through Esther’s unlikely friendship with the Orthodox Jew Mr. Marks (Kyle Civale ’20), limitations imposed by religion. We clearly see that while all the characters come from different backgrounds, they are all hemmed in by their own identities.
As the play revolves around a seamstress and her clothing, I would be remiss in overlooking the seamstress behind the show: theater professor Laurie Churba, the show’s costume designer, outdoes herself in the clothing seen on the stage of this production. From the characters’ unique clothing aesthetics, to the intimate apparel made by Esther, the costumes in this production are spectacular and “sew” the whole piece together.
Do not miss your chance to see the final performances: Thursday, November 10, through Saturday November 12, 8 pm, and Sunday, November 13, 2 pm.