The year is 1905, and there’s a bridal party going on at a boarding house in Lower Manhattan. Absent from the festivities is an African American woman who, for nearly two decades, has sat alone at a treadle-powered sewing machine in her rented room crafting exquisite lingerie for other women. Having just turned 35, she resigns herself to never finding love.
“Intimate Apparel,” from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a tender and tension-filled story that examines friendship, marriage, class and race as it affects women whose lives are as cinched as the undergarments they wear. In this North Coast Rep production, the powerful cast delivers the full measure of this exquisitely crafted tale. It also marks a confident directorial debut by Jasmine Bracey.
Central to the story is seamstress Esther (Nedra Snipes, in a brava performance), who has been on her own since she was a teenager. Widowed landlady Mrs. Dickson (Teri Brown) serves as a surrogate mother but she’s an incorrigible gossip and would-be matchmaker. Esther turns a deaf ear. She has ambitions to open a beauty shop for Black women and by embracing frugality she has amassed $1,800 over the course of 18 years; every dollar of which is stitched into the lining of the crazy quilt the covers her broken-down bed.
Then along comes a curve ball as Mrs. Dickson teasingly withdraws from her pocket a letter that she “accidentally” opened and read. A stranger named George (Donald Paul), working on the Panama Canal has heard about Esther from an acquaintance. Courtesy of set designer Marty Burnett and lighting designer Matt Novotny, George appears to us as an apparition softly spotlighted behind a diaphanous curtain that spans the stage. In courtly language, he introduces himself and politely asks permission to initiate regular correspondence.
As Esther ponders what to do about George, she makes the rounds of her diverse clientele. On Fifth Avenue, we meet the beautiful Mrs. Van Buren (a sparkling Madeleine Barker) who married well and is a fixture in high society, yet her union is on the rocks because of the couple’s inability to conceive. Her husband is cruelly hostile about the situation, and out of alcohol-fueled loneliness, Mrs. Van Buren finds solace in Esther’s visits and spends lavishly on a boudoir wardrobe she doesn’t need. Esther shyly shares George’s letter. She wants to reply but is illiterate. Mrs. Van Buren jumps at the opportunity to be cupid’s scribe adding – unbeknown to Esther – her own romantic flourishes to the pages.
Esther also sells intimate creations to sex workers, such as Mayme (Arizsia Staton), a talented pianist who once envisioned playing in classy establishments in New York or even the capitals of Europe, however, the color line of the early twentieth century allows no room for those dreams. A genuine friendship exists between the women and Mayme becomes Esther’s second ghostwriter to George with an ingenious way to explain the sudden change in penmanship.
Esther’s booming business requires frequent visits to the shop of Mr. Marks (Jonathan Fisher, Jr.), an immigrant fabric merchant who delights in rare textiles and takes enormous pleasure in sharing them – and the stories behind them – with Esther. Mr. Marks also takes quiet satisfaction being in Esther’s company. It’s clear there’s an attraction between the two but an arranged marriage awaits Mr. Marks in Romania to a woman whom he has never met. There’s no question that as an observant Orthodox Jew, he will fulfill his family’s traditions and religious obligations.
In a story about sewing, costume designer Elisa Benzoni has pulled out all stops.
The correspondence between Esther and George progresses in a matter of months to a marriage proposal which Esther accepts. It’s clear from the moment they meet and say, “I Do,” that the flirtatious letters raised expectations that neither can possibly meet. Tension escalate as George seeks work but is indignant by the menial tasks (shoe shiner, hotel luggage carrier) a Black man is offered.
George learns of the fortune stashed away in Esther’s quilt and tries tocajole her into giving him all of it so he can chase after a “cannot fail” business opportunity. Can she trust him? Can she trust herself? Can she trust love?
by Lynne Friedman