The story surrounds Esther, a thirty-five-year-old unmarried African-American woman living at the turn of the twentieth century. Esther makes her living as a seamstress, selling intimate apparel to women from all walks of life. In the same way people traditionally open up to bartenders, Esther's clients reveal their troubles to her. There's something about helping someone adjust their new corset that breaks down traditional barriers of propriety, and Esther ends up privy to all sorts of secrets she wouldn't otherwise be told.
Esther takes it all in. Viola Davis plays Esther as a straightforward, yet painfully shy, woman. She frequently holds her hands up at her chest, as though she's trying to retreat into her shell. Esther knows a huge part of her job is discretion and holding her tongue, but deceit is not in her nature and she sometimes blurts out her opinions or feelings. Davis's Esther is instantly likeable - she's a hardworking good person who we want to see succeed.
Nottage shows us the range of Esther's clients - from Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy White woman in an unhappy marriage, to Mayme, a "Colored" whore - and how Esther visits both of their worlds, but never quite lives in them. In fact, it seems Esther seems most comfortable in the world of Mr. Marks, a Romanian Jew who sells Esther the fabric she uses to make her creations. In the fashion industry in 1905, there's no room for prejudice; Mr. Marks and Esther come from different cultures and know little about each other, but they know their fabrics and know they depend on each other's business for survival.
And all of this - which could easily make a play on its own - is just background. The main plot of Intimate Apparel surrounds Esther's attempt to find love at thirty-five. The owner of the rooming house where Esther lives, Mrs. Dickson, tries to make a "safe" match for Esther with a man who has enough assets to secure her future. But Esther, despite her low self-esteem, isn't willing to give up the fight yet, and when she receives an unsolicited letter from George, an unknown man who wants permission to write her, the idea of marrying for love is too great for her to pass up.
It is very nearly unnecessary for the play to concentrate on this unlikely courtship, as Esther's life as a single woman is interesting enough. But Nottage's story is not simply a study of the difficulties faced by an unmarried Black woman in the work force in 1905; it also addresses men, and the gender roles of the time.
The cast, imported whole from the Roundabout Theatre's production, delivers. Linda Gravátt is particularly notable as the protective Mrs. Dickson. Her first act speech explaining to Esther the ways of the world is the sort of thing awards are made of. Also noteworthy is Corey Stoll, whose Mr. Marks speaks volumes in an uncomfortable word or involuntary gesture.
Derek McLane's set allows for seamless set changes - set pieces fly in silently or raise from under the ground as needed, never slowing the action - except, of course, when, as on the night reviewed, a piece's failure to drop stopped the action altogether. Yet it is a tribute to the strength of Nottage's script that, despite this unplanned intermission, the actors immediately reestablished their momentum and the play recovered as though nothing had happened.
Intimate Apparel runs at the Mark Taper Forum through September 12, 2004. For information and tickets, see http://www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum -- Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director -- presents the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Designed by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Designed by Marc Gwinn; Music by Harold Wheeler; Casting by Mele Nagler and Amy Lieberman, CSA. Production Stage Manager Mary K Klinger; Stage Manager David S. Franklin.
Photo by Craig Schwartz