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INTIMATE APPAREL

Directed by Philip Akin

Written by Lynn Nottage

Starring Raven Dauda

and Kevin Hanchard

Obsidian Theatre

At Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs in Toronto

***½

One audience member was so engrossed in the play Intimate Apparel that at a key theatrical moment, she actually shouted out to the heroine, "Don't do it!" And in truth, African-American playwright Lynn Nottage has fashioned a compelling and richly layered look at New York society in 1905 as seen through the life and times of black seamstress Esther Mills (Raven Dauda).

Obsidian Theatre is Toronto's pre-eminent black company, and happily, artistic director Philip Akin is addicted to theatre blogs, which is where he found reference to Nottage's award-winning 2004 play. Intimate Apparel reminds me of what theatre in New York used to be like a couple of decades ago, when new American plays would consume one in their emotional intensity and socio-political inquiry.

Esther is 35 and a plain Jane dreaming of Mr. Right. She lives in a respectable Harlem rooming house with landlady Mrs. Dickson (Marium Carvell) and is a successful designer of women's lingerie. Her clients include the upper crust and unhappily married Mrs. Van Buren (Carly Street) and the Tenderloin District black prostitute Mayme (Lisa Berry), a could-have-been concert pianist. Esther buys her fabrics from the Romanian Jewish immigrant Mr. Marks (Alex Poch-Goldin) in his Lower East Side tenement.

It is how Esther interacts with these four people that we find out about her, and about them. This cross-pollination of society allows Nottage to make far-ranging observations about the human condition that both titillate and irritate. Esther is stern and churchgoing, but her outer veneer of steely competence begins to shatter as she is drawn more and more into the lives of those around her.

Enter George Armstrong (Kevin Hanchard) - a Caribbean islander building the Panama Canal. He found out about Esther from a co-worker, her deacon's son, and, out of loneliness, begins to write her letters, which she answers.

Because Esther is illiterate, both Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme become her amanuenses. And so George is presented in words with an Esther who is and isn't herself. He proposes marriage from afar, and she accepts.

And so the trap is sprung, where lies become truth, emotions distorted and communications tangled. It could be argued that some of Nottage's plot is contrived, even predictable, but one cares passionately about these people, and so we can forgive the lapses. Intimate Apparel takes on many meanings.

The very nature of Esther's work is a metaphor, where outward barriers are stripped away to reveal the psychological underwear below, and depicting these raw emotions is Nottage's greatest strength as a writer.

Because there are so many different venues, Tamara Marie Kucheran's set in strung out on various levels along the narrow band of the Berkeley Upstairs stage. I was sitting farthest from Mayme's room and at times Barry was inaudible, when I wanted to savour every word. Kucheran's period costumes, however, are superb, particularly Esther's corsets. Renée Brode's lighting is pinpoint in its precision for each area, but Dauda does travel miles during the play.

As director, Akin has gone for the jugular in terms of emotions. He has concentrated so much on character that at times he has forgotten about pacing, and there are some awkward pauses that break the rhythm. That being said, Akin is to be congratulated on his casting choices because his actors are perfect for the roles.

Nobody does Jewish better than Poch-Goldin, and he always manages to shy short of caricature by feeling his roles in the heart. His Mr. Marks is so poignant, he brings tears to the eyes. Berry's endearing Mayme is blowsy and sophisticated at the same time, while Carvell is the model of a successful turn-of-the-century New Woman who came from nothing and made good. Street, a ravishing beauty, is so brittle as the fragile society lady that she is like a porcelain doll.

The play, however, rests with the magnificent Dauda. If we don't believe her, we don't believe the others. Further, her relationship with George is crucial to the play and both she and Hanchard give miraculous performances.

For the first act, Hanchard is the invisible letter writer, and so his second act is filled with anticipation, and the actor delivers the testosterone charisma we have been waiting for.

Intimate Apparel is a good, old-fashioned theatrical experience. It is a well-made play in the best sense of the term.

Intimate Apparel continues at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs until Feb. 3 (416-368-3110).