Lynn Nottage offers up a snapshot of urban American life circa the early 20th century, and Robert Craig faithfully re-creates that world in a staging that carefully blends Daniel Wheeler's scenic and lighting designs and Julie Moore's sound design with Donna Fritsche's period costumes for a solid production of a modern (2003) classic.
At 35 and "unattached," Manhattan seamstress Esther Mills (Chanda Hartman) longs for a love of her own. She gets her wish but with plenty of unexpected strings attached, all with echoes of A Raisin in the Sun. Esther not only creates gorgeous unmentionables for ladies both high- and low-born; she is also each one's confidante, giving more specific meaning to the first word of the play's title. In keeping with Esther's occupation, Nottage spins a separate story thread for each primary character, then carefully interweaves them while giving Craig's cast plenty to work with: poetic language of faraway places, dramatic confrontations between Esther and those around her, and sly humor that transmutes what could have been something bitter into something more bittersweet.
For the most part, this production and its cast are true to the nature of the piece, although Hartman is far more attractive than her wallflower character, while her garb isn't nearly frumpy enough. Also lacking is the palpable mutual attraction felt between Esther and Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric salesman who has come to regard her as an intimate friend. Sean Engard excels, spinning Old World courtliness from that role, one of only two people in Esther's orbit who treat her with respect. Erryn Lewis has the right look for Esther's prostitute-pianist friend Mayme -- tall, slender, and attractive -- but could use more fire and sass. Closer to the mark is Scott Johnson as George Armstrong, the Barbadoan who starts a long-distance love-letter courtship with Esther, and Dawn L. Brown and Stephanie Schulz offer solid support.
Presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Jan. 23–Feb. 28. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
(Feb. 1, 8, 22 only.) (562) 494-1014. Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre.