The Delicate Fabric of Intimate Apparel
There is an elegant beauty to Lynn Nottage's well received and popular 2004 Intimate Apparel that is fully complemented by the breathtakingly beautiful, stately and moving production currently on stage at Red Bank's Two River Theatre.
Set in 1905 New York City, Intimate Apparel recounts the pivotal 35th year in the life of Esther Mills, a plain, virgin Negro woman with a beautiful soul. Since coming to New York when she was seventeen, Esther has lived in a sheltering rooming house for single women run by a well intentioned, but intrusive widow. Having had the good fortune to have been taught how to sew intimate ladies undergarments, Esther has supported herself by making such garments for her diverse customers. More than twenty other women have married and left the rooming house during Esther's years there.
There are two men who will play meaningful roles in her life this year. One is George Armstrong, a West Indian laborer who, while working on the building of the Panama Canal, begins an epistolary love affair with her. George had obtained her name and address from a fellow laborer, the son of her deacon. In short order, George proposes marriage, comes to New York and marries Esther. However, Esther learns at great cost to herself that George is not the sensitive gentleman that he has represented himself to be. The other is "Mr. Marks", a gentle orthodox Jew from whom Esther purchases fabric. The two share a love for fine fabrics and are clearly smitten with one another.
The entire ensemble forms a seamless tapestry of humanity. Conveying an understated but determined woman, Stacey Sargeant makes us care about her Esther. Although determined to maintain her dignity and attain economic security, Esther knows that her nubile, child bearing years are numbered, and desperation causes her to take foolish risks. Curtis McClarin is an intimidating yet handsome and charismatic George. The allure of McClarin's strong sexual presence and Sargeant's reaction to it further account for Esther's uncharacteristic recklessness. On the other hand, warmth and sweetness flow effortlessly from Matthew Boston's Mr. Marks. Sargeant and Boston project so strong a rapport that the barriers to their relationship momentarily seem to melt away.
Elain Graham is convincing as Mrs. Dickson, the rooming house owner who married a much older, troublesome man with her eye on that day when he would die and she would be left the property. The other two women are customers of Esther who are at opposite ends of the social structure. Nikiya Mathis delivers a vivid portrayal of a much desired bordello queen. Amy Lynn Stewart's socialite Mrs. Van Buren has nowhere else to turn and must endure the mistreatment of a husband who is no longer interested in her. Stewart nicely conveys the duality of a privileged person whose privilege is so circumscribed that she regards her seamstress as her best friend.
Director Seret Scott has given the play a smoothly integrated, highly polished and elegant staging. Intimate Apparel is rather slow moving. Whether this is the result of a surfeit of dialogue, excess of plotting, or overly stately pacing is difficult to judge.
There is some beautifully evocative music which smooths the transitions. Not credited, it is likely the score composed by Harold Wheeler which accompanied this play at New York's Roundabout.
Scenic Designer Tony Cisek has designed a backdrop consisting of a dozen or so gorgeous and glimmering, often transparent, fabrics which at varying angles cover the entire width of the stage and are each suspended from ropes which are in a pattern that makes each appear to be suspended on a loom. The fabrics greatly enhance the large playing area, which features a bed at center stage and properties representing various locales spread across the stage at the rear. A sewing machine table and a dress dummy are the key elements of Esther's bedroom; a piano (placed in front of a red fabric) defines Mayme's bordello bedroom; a decorated room divider and a fashionable dressing table and chair are the focal point of society's Mrs. Van Buren's boudoir; and a fabric cabinet tells us that we are at Mr. Marks'. Burke Brown's lighting is crucial to complete the scenic effects. Olivera Gajic's handsome costumes, which include the featured intimate apparel credited to Diane, are as lovely as they are appropriate.
Lynn Nottage has already begun to compile a body of work which makes it clear that she is one of America's leading playwrights (her 2009 Ruined won the Pulitzer Prize). Her Intimate Apparel is a rewarding jewel of old fashioned storytelling. And its beautifully conceived, heartbreaking final image will stay with you for a long time.
Intimate Apparel continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm; Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through October 10, 2010, at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage; directed by Seret Scott