Amanda Edwards shines in ‘Intimate Apparel’

By Arline GreerSun theater critic Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 5:15 p.m. Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 5:15 p.m.

The best thing to be said about the Gainesville Community Playhouse’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” at the Vam York Theater is that it brings Amanda Edwards, a wonderfully talented actress, to the stage. Edwards shines with the true, unwavering light of an actress who lives her role so intensely that she burns her way into our consciousness and makes us forgive any other inadequacies of the play’s production — almost.

In a recent interview, Pulitzer Prize winner Nottage said, “a play exists in literary form until the first moment you … allow a group of actors to read it. Then it becomes a dramatic form. during the rehearsal process you make discoveries because there are things that work beautifully as literature but have no dramatic life.”

The dramatic life of the GCP’s “Intimate Apparel” depends almost entirely on the performance of Edwards, who plays Esther, a 35-year-old single African-American woman, living in new York City at the turn of the last century. a nimble seamstress who fashions undergarments for women in all areas of society, Esther’s clients include Mrs. Van Buren, a white society matron who is deeply unhappy with her husband’s inattention; Mayme, a prostitute with artistic aspirations; and Mrs. Dickson, the landlady with whom she has lived since she arrived in the city 18 years ago. Esther moves easily within these layers of new York society, blending self-confidence and humility, listening to her friends’ confidences.

It is a society of women, to be sure, but it is men who control it, a fact Esther is well aware of since as she has reached the age of 35 with no marital prospects. Hope arrives in the form of a letter from George Armstrong, a man working on the construction of the Panama Canal. He asks permission to correspond with her and although Esther is, herself, illiterate, she enlists the aid of the romance-starved Mrs. Van Buren to write letters for her. and so, this pen-pal correspondence (think of today’s Internet romances) proceeds and ultimately reaches its zenith when George arrives in new York.

Esther doesn’t actually need a man for financial support nor does she want marriage necessarily. Esther wants true love, a kindred spirit with whom she can share her dreams, a man to whom she can talk about her plans to open a beauty parlor for black women.

Mr. marks, a young Jewish man who sells beautiful fabrics, is that kind of man. Esther cherishes the time she spends with him, and together they sensually stroke silks and satins, and sometimes, share a cup of tea. their attraction to each other is very real, but Mr. marks is an orthodox Jew. He may not touch Esther, a woman outside his family, and his marriage has been arranged to a woman he’s never seen. the encounters between Esther and Nicholas may, who plays Mr. marks so sensitively, are tender and true.

Yet, Edwards’ relationships with Kim Huebner as Mrs. Van Buren and Madeleine Escarne as Mayme have little tension. the actresses give good performances, but their connections to Esther lack conviction. Edwards does relate to Shatiquea Davis, who plays Mrs. Dickens, her landlady. Davis gives a wholly dignified and impassioned performance as Esther’s friend and mentor. (Someone should divest her of that fright wig which makes her look like a bad imitation of Harpo Marx.)

Troy McCray as Esther’s suitor, George, who all but breaks her heart, makes a good case for spinsterhood. It’s hard to believe this lazy, irresponsible man is the same one who persisted in digging the Panama Canal.

Esther holds fast with her dignity intact, her strength steady and more thanks to Edwards’ fine performance.

Credit the original costuming for “Intimate Apparel” to Betty Issa. the set, which shows various places where Esther visits, is designed by Patricia Thomson and lighted by Shontae K. White. the musical accompaniment for the production is mostly by Scott Joplin and seems an inappropriate choice. Rhonda Wilson is “Intimate Apparel’s” hard-working director who doesn’t quite get the play from page to stage.

Amanda Edwards shines in ‘Intimate Apparel’

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