Intimate Apparel’s central character, Esther Mills (Velma Austin), is certainly a woman of her time, yet an anomaly of that time as well. She’s a 35-year-old never-married African-American woman living independently in 1905 New York City. She earns an apparently comfortable living as a designer and seamstress of intimate apparel, and her work is in demand by the wealthy and lower classes alike. Through her clients, who include a wealthy and lonely Park Avenue matron and a Tenderloin prostitute, she has exposure to all levels of New York social strata. Though her involvement with her clients’ intimate apparel enables an emotional intimacy with them as well, she is acutely aware of the societal boundaries between an upper class white woman and a black woman. She may share the society matron’s secrets, but may not enter the woman’s house through her front door. And, though the Jewish immigrant merchant from whom she buys her exquisite fabrics may be a soul mate, their societal and cultural differences prohibit them from a relationship based on much more than their mutual love of fine cloth.
Just after I began to expect Intimate Apparel to be a mostly predictable historical drama, the plot took the first of several unexpected turns and became a fascinating story. Quite out of nowhere, Esther begins receiving letters from a West Indian man working as a digger on the Panama Canal and their correspondence leads in short order to a marriage proposal. The second act begins just after their wedding, and the idealized image of the strong yet sensitive hero of the letters becomes a real and complex character, while the society matron, the prostitute and the Jewish merchant are no longer archetypes but are all involved in the plot intrigues that follow.
In this production, one of the first since the Roundabout Theater’s well-received 2004 New York mounting, director Jessica Thebus gets the action off to a somewhat slow start, as the actors display the guarded formality of social interaction that would have been typical of the time. Their pace and emotions become more intense as the plot begins to take shape and the emotional stakes increase. Once this happens, some remarkable performances begin to create indelible characters. Velma Austin creates a quiet yet determined and dignified Esther. Ms. Austin has a slight build that suggests fragility, but she possesses an authority and purpose that display her character’s strength. The prostitute Mayme, as played by JoNell Kennedy, is able to use her sex appeal for both her business and her own enjoyment but is self-aware and possesses a subtle sense of regret at her position in society. Seeing the girl-next-door Ms. Kennedy out-of-character in a post-show talkback made me even more impressed with her transformation on stage. Kymberly Mellen quickly earns the audience’s sympathies as the deeply unhappy Mrs. Van Buren.
Morocco Omari as Esther’s man George and Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her landlady Mrs. Dickson create convincing characters where actors of less skill could have fallen into clichés. Omari has the chemistry and physical presence (i.e., he’s hot), to make the audience understand his appeal to women. George has similarities to many other characters who do their women wrong, but Omari gives George enough texture to make him new. Similarly, Ms. Bruce’s Mrs. Dixon gets beyond the know-it-all neighbor and surrogate matriarch of the women in her boarding house and convinces us of her concern and affection for Esther. Eli Goodman effectively plays the subtext of Mr. Marks, who is unable by tradition (and the fact that he is betrothed to a woman in Europe he has never met) to openly express his feelings for Esther.
Todd Rosenthal’s detailed and realistic set creates separate playing areas for the homes of Esther, Mayme, Marks and Mrs. Van Buren. The letters sent from Esther’s suitor (and eventual husband) George Armstrong are read from a platform above the other areas. The set is subtly dressed with fabric – a piece draping the rooming house piano, the samples in Marks’ shop, laundry hanging in the back. A painted backdrop provides a setting of a ghetto back alley of the period. The costumes designed by Linda Roethke provide detailed, embroidered pieces of intimate apparel that justify Esther’s success, and full costumes that believably establish the period.
Intimate Apparel is likely to become a staple of regional theater, and during the talk-back, the cast reported a rumor that there is interest in the property as an HBO feature film for Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance. This Steppenwolf production makes a great case for the piece as one of the first major new plays of the century.
Intimate Apparel runs through March 13, 2005 at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Performances are Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. To purchase tickets, call the Steppenwolf box office at 312-335-3830. For more information visit www.steppenwolf.org.