An Intimate Look at Human Spirit

—Olson-Larsen Galleries presents dsmArts—

Above: Actors Brendan Dunphy and Davida Williams find good material in the drama “Intimate Apparel,” now playing at the Stoner Theater.

Theater Review by Michael Morain

When a smile flickers across a face that is usually stoic, it’s all the brighter for its rarity, like sunshine through a rip in the clouds.

To see it happen, just watch Davida Williams in Pyramid Theatre’s compelling production of “Intimate Apparel,” which runs through Sunday at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater. When she smiles, the black-box studio theater suddenly isn’t.

In this bittersweet story written by two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage and directed by Tiffany Johnson, Williams plays a quietly dignified seamstress named Esther Mills. (Viola Davis, another stoic master, premiered the role on Broadway in 2004.)

A daughter of former slaves, Esther lives in New York in the early 1900s and spends most of her time making fancy undergarments for rich white ladies on Fifth Avenue. She stuffs her profits into a quilt and dreams of opening a beauty parlor where black women can be pampered, too.

She also dreams of getting married, but at 35, that’s starting to feel like a long shot. Over the last 18 years at her boarding house, she has watched 21 housemates get married and is now making a camisole for bride No. 22.

“I’ve been living in this room so long, I reckon I’m just a piece of furniture,” she confides to the landlady (the excellent Farica Robertson).

But soon enough, Esther starts corresponding with one of the construction workers who is digging the Panama Canal. Esther herself can’t read or write, so she enlists the help of two of her clients, a brandy-swilling socialite named Mrs. Van Buren (Kim Haymes) and a prostitute named Mayme (DeShana Langford), who both write flirtatious letters to the lonesome guy in the swamp.

All of this could easily sink into a historical soap opera—maybe a “Real Housewives” series as told by Ken Burns—but the dialogue rings true and the actors play their characters with emotional honesty. Mrs. Van Buren is ditzy but sad and longs to have children. And Mayme, who has a soulful singing voice, is jaded but still hopes to find true love.

With each letter from Panama, Esther the wallflower starts to open up and bloom. So it’s hard to watch when the mystery man inevitably shows up (in the swaggering form of Ryan Collier, in an impressive debut) and treats her wrong. He isn’t nearly the gentleman his letters suggested.

When Esther reluctantly gives him her life’s savings so he can buy some horses—or so he says—somebody in the opening-night crowd shouted “Don’t do it!” And when she finally stands up for herself a bit later, another voice cried out, “There you go!” (Oh, if only Aretha Franklin could have been there to show her how to demand some respect: “I’m about to give you all of my money, and all I’m asking in return, honey …”)

On the way out, I texted two of my friends to encourage them to get tickets. They enjoy their book club but are deeply skeptical about local theater, so this is exactly their kind of show.

This is also a show for anybody who appreciates what a perceptive director and a tightly woven cast can do with good material. There is a scene in which Esther’s fabric dealer, a charming Romanian immigrant (played by Brendan Dunphy in a welcome return), shows off a bolt of silk and wonders how she could transform it into something even more beautiful.

“I can see from your hands that you are blessed with the needle and the thread,” he tells her in a thick accent.

She eventually turns the cloth, like the play itself, into a generous gift.

Intimate Apparel starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater. $26.50; pyramidtheatre.org

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