One boring pair of panties

by Joshua T. Dies

Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s current production is the Nashville-area premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, winner of the 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award and the John Gassner Award for Best Play. The production, directed by Rene Copeland, runs March 22-April 7 in the Johnson Theater at TPAC.

The play centers on Esther, played by Nashvillian Stella Reed. Esther is an African-American seamstress in 1905 Manhattan, living in a boarding house for women and sewing intimate garments for clients who range from wealthy white women to black prostitutes. Using the intimacy of her position, Esther can serve clients from all walks of life, and this allows the audience keen insights into class and race relations.

The Rep is known for its quality productions. This however isn’t the Rep at its finest. It’s hard for me to look at the awards heaped on Nottage’s piece, because the show I saw on March 22 begs the question: What play did the Rep read?

From the boring treatment of the source material to the final production, the show is a snooze-fest that not even the obvious dedication Copeland put in directing can shake it up. Everything is right there in front of you: one of Nashville’s finest directing, a fantastic cast, impeccable costumes and set design. But when the curtain comes up, the stage fizzles like wet firecracker.

I couldn’t decide whose performance irritated me the most. Reed’s Esther is mealy-mouthed and timid, wincing her way around the stage like she had needles stick in her pinafore. Ross Brooks, who is so dreamy I’d watch him act out paint drying, is unconvincing as the Hasidic shopkeeper Mr. Marks. His accent seems more college frat boy than Brooklyn Jew, but he does far better than John Brooks, whose Caribbean accent is about as convincing as Madge’s British one. Tamira Henry and Lisa Kimmey, who play the headmistress at Esther’s boarding house and a prostitute client, respectively, are at least passable, although both give bland and uninspired performances. God bless Jenny Littleton in the role of rich Mrs. Van Buren. Hers is the only performance with any real energy. And what really aggravates me is that all of the actors are better than what I saw on the stage that night. However, I could always be wrong. Maybe each and every actor gave tour-de-force performances that evening. I just couldn’t hear any of it.

I sat through the first act convinced I was coming down with some sort of inner ear infection. I could only hear every fifth or so word anyone said, and half the time the actor was turned completely away from any side of the audience. On my way back in after the intermission, I noticed a small sign that read ‘Infrared Listening Devices Available Upon Request.’ Apparently my inner ear infection was spreading. Everyone I talked with afterwards commented on the not-so-audible problem. And it’s not an acoustic problem: glasses tinkling, ripping fabric – these normally quiet effects seemed distractingly loud when they happened on stage or in the audience (as I learned when I knock over my water bottle.)

Unfortunately, the production’s biggest problem is simply its placement in the Rep’s season. As a follow-up to the magnificent production of Speed-the-Plow, Intimate Apparel feels flat and dull. I would have napped through the second act, but my water-bottle-dropping disorder was also spreading. But they have the chance to redeem themselves with the upcoming production of out playwright Paul Rudnick’s hilarious I Hate Hamlet.

Intimate Apparel runs through April 7 at TPAC. The production carries an audience advisory for its mature content and themes. TalkBacks for audience members will occur after Thursday evening performances on April 5. Director Copeland and the actors will be on hand for a structured discussion of the creative process and the play’s themes and ideas. Audience members are invited to meet and chat casually in the Johnson Theater Lobby immediately after the performance on April 6.

Tickets are available at the TPAC Box Office, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills, and at all Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets may be ordered by phone: 615-244.ARTS or at

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