Love. Heartbreak. Starting over. It’s the same in any year. 1905 or 2012. It makes no difference.
Alberta Theatre Project’s Intimate Apparel is set in New York City 1905, but there’s something about the story that connects so well with life today, everyone can find an emotional parallel to living in 2012. The story creates something so magical in the interaction between the characters and the audience, that Intimate Apparel is one not to be missed.
Last night Wendy and I represented C.I.A. and had the pleasure of attending pizza/blogger night for ATP’s first play of the season. (It officially opens tonight, October 12.) The heart of the story combined with the extraordinary performances was magic and Intimate Apparel is one of those shows I will never forget.
INSIDE CHAT: (Left to right) ATP Artistic Director Vanessa Porteous, Director Nigel Shawn Williams and composer Tim Williams speak during pizza/blogger night for the company’s first play of the season, Intimate Apparel.
Photo by Amy Jo Espetveidt, Quadrophonic Image
Esther (played my the remarkable Karen Robinson) is a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who lives in a boarding house. She lives a simple life sewing undergarments for the women of New York, saving her hard earned money and dreams of opening a beauty parlour for coloured women, a place where they can be pampered instead of the other way around. She visits a Jewish fabric salesman (Graham Percy) every Tuesday and is intrigued by him but doesn’t dare take it further. They are from different worlds after all. One day a letter arrives from a man named George Armstrong (Andre Sills), a labourer building the Panama Canal. Although she can’t read or write, Esther recruits the women in her life – the socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Orton), the whore Mayme (Abena Malika) and the widow Mrs. Dickson (Kim Roberts) – to communicate with her would-be suitor. He says he loves her, but once he arrives in New York, everything is not as simple as the words on the page.
It’s not often that a play moves me to tears, let alone nearly every one around me but during the second act, I heard sobs from every direction. The performances were spot on. The set, the music, the costumes – everything about the play worked to build a sense of connection.
Even though it was based in 1905, the story resonated with life today. The woman next to me commented on how the love letters were like online dating – you never know who you’re going to meet. Wendy said she saw many parallels to her own life as a modern woman working in today’s day and age. My own past experiences with infidelity and not truly knowing someone you love made me connect with Ester’s pain and anguish. And as I was leaving, many people were talking about what they saw of their own lives reflected in the play. The whole walk to my car those around me were comparing their stories to those we just witnessed. It was magical.
One of the great parts of attending pizza night at ATP, always the first Thursday of the run, is the talk beforehand with the people who worked to make this play special. ATP Artistic Director Vanessa Porteous, Intimate Apparel Director Nigel Shawn Williams and composer Tim Williams spoke prior to the show about their own connections to the work and what they thought about the relevance to today.
Nigel told the crowd of his passion for plays that feature strong women characters, like Esther, who live in a world where there is light and dark in everything, especially life and love.
“We experience the same pain, the same heartbreak, the same love and hope,” he said. “We still want tomorrow to be better than today.”
The themes are universal, Nigel explained.
“Other than the design elements of 1905, I have no interest in period pieces,” he said. “I’m not interested in doing little historical stories. [Intimate Apparel] is a human play. It’s humanistic.”
Intimate Apparel is set in the past, but was written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage only four years ago making it a contemporary play with a backdrop of 1905, something important for Nigel.
“There is a line in the play where [Mr. Marks], the Jewish fabric salesman says when we come to this country we don’t empty our pockets of our past, we carry it with us,” Nigel said. “We carry our past with us.”
Being set in 1905, the play challenges the caste system and the expectations of society that is put on the characters – the southern belle, the young Jewish man, the African-American woman – explained Nigel.
“Everything was about to break out, to expand,” he said. “Everything was about to change.”
And change it did.
The characters in Intimate Apparel lash out at their stations in life. They rally against their expectations. But, like in life, not all of them end up further ahead. Sometimes life is circular, the only way to move ahead is to go back to the beginning.
If you love stories about the human predicament you should see this play. Intimate Apparel is as real and heartbreaking as they come. My only suggestion – bring a sleeve of Kleenex, you’re going to need it.
ATP’s Intimate Apparel runs until October 27 at the EPCOR Centre’s Martha Cohen Theatre (215 8 Ave SE). And if you’re a student, That $10 Ticket Thing is coming up this Tuesday, October 16, where your student ID will get you a ticket for only $10 and a chance to talk to the artists during a post-show chat.