Allen Moyer's thoughtful/imaginative set design fuels Nottage's dexterous script. The playwright's grandmother, a seamstress, came to New York City by herself in 1902. Intimate Apparel begins in Lower Manhattan in 1905. A black woman, Esther (Nikki E. Walker), sits at her sewing machine and converses with Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who runs the boarding house where Esther lives. We learn that Esther is 35, single, and worried that she will remain so. She is also illiterate.
A man named George (Isaiah Johnson), from Barbados and now laboring in Panama, writes her. He, too, wishes companionship and has heard of Esther from one of his co-workers; they are digging what will become the Panama Canal.
The gorgeous set begins to open from what appeared, at first, to be a single room. The upper tier of the stage hosts Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a well-to-do white woman who is bereft. Her husband is not really a part of her life and she very much looks forward to visits from Esther, who tends to Mrs. Van Buren's wardrobe. She writes letters, for Esther, to George. Soon thereafter, Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), on the lower level of the stage, is introduced. Amiable Mayme, a prostitute, and Heather are fast friends; Mayme, also African-American, writes additional letters for Esther.
To acquire fabric to support her work, Esther goes to the apartment/workplace for Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider). Jewish, compassionate, and attracted to Esther, he is unable, through words, to express his true feelings.
The first act ends as George comes to New York City. Above them, the following appears: "Unidentified Negro Couple ca. 1905." After intermission, the audience is greeted, once again, by a one room set: the head of a bed faces the house seats while at the foot Esther and George stand. George soon becomes hostile toward Esther. She visits Mr. Marks again and it is clear that the garment man and the seamstress could, during another era, become intimately involved. This will not occur as Esther says, explaining that she will not see him any longer, "I think you know why." We will see...
Nottage's story takes on several unexpected turns and one which is not anticipated involves Mrs. Van Buren.
Intimate Apparel is a period piece which rings with truth and beauty. Esther thinks of herself as unbecoming but, in actuality, this is a tall, lovely woman. Graceful, she fashions clothing for others. She desperately does not wish to remain alone for the rest of her life. Perhaps, however, her fear of loneliness is what terrifies her.
The six actors are, to a person, affecting. Nikki E. Walker is soulful and complicated as Esther. Tommy Schrider, especially during the first act, is heartfelt as the conflicted and, in some ways, equally sensitive Mr. Marks.
Moyer's scenography, as mentioned earlier, is an active ingredient, if you will. It enhances the production and, through Robinson's direction, moves fluently to allow each scene to transpire. Michael Krass's costuming suits each character well and Fitz Patton's original music assists with mood.
Nottage's process is worth careful notation. She has written, "I found an image in a lingerie history book of a beautiful white satin wedding corset embossed with orange blossoms. It was delicate and gracefulexactly what I imagined Esther would create for her wedding night. The image was dated 1905. That year became my departure point, my anchor." Her play, one which probes human beings' motives and emotions, sustains throughout.
Intimate Apparel continues at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut, through November 1st, 2014. For tickets, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.
- Fred Sokol