Intimate Apparel is the most produced play in American regional theatre this year, with 17 productions, and it's not hard to see why. Lynn Nottage's play is filled with sharp dialogue, an attractive historic setting, some keen insights into class and race relations, and a strong, sympathetic African American heroine. The Philadelphia Theatre Company has given it a handsome production that is very enjoyable - until the play eventually collapses due to some predictable plot turns.
Set in 1905, Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther Mills, who has worked nonstop since the age of nine, eking out a steady living making delicate lingerie for wealthy women (and women who want to look wealthy). Now 35, she is proud of what she has accomplished on her own - as she puts it, her choice was "either learn to sew or turn back sheets for 50 cents a day" - but she feels that her best years have passed her by as she sat at her sewing machine making clothes for parties that she could never attend. Self-conscious about her looks - she wears drab clothes and wire-rimmed glasses that connote her seriousness of purpose - she thinks that no man would ever consider marrying her.
Then she draws the attention of George Armstrong, whose love letters from Panama (where he is working on the construction of the canal) fill her drab life with poetry. She receives conflicting advice on what to do from the women in her life. Mrs. Dickson, the proprietor of the boarding house Esther lives in, has memories of the disappointments of her own marriage and tells Esther not to set her hopes too high. Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy white customer, fills her with encouragement and even writes letters back to George for her (since Esther is illiterate). Also helping with the letter-writing is Esther's best friend Mayme, a free-spirited prostitute who is as experienced in the ways of the world as Esther is inexperienced.
In Nottage's world, all the women are physically constrained by the corsets that they wear, which serve as an apt symbol for the restrictions that society places on them. Esther tests those limits in her relationship with Mr. Marks, the shy Jewish immigrant who sells her fabric but who can never be any closer to her due to his own set of constraints.
Esther's story is presented in a very appealing way by director Tim Vasen and a top-notch crew. The costumes (by Janus Stefanowicz) are appropriate at all times, telling the story as well as the dialogue does. Ann G. Wrightson's lighting varies dramatically (and effectively) from scene to scene, and Lee Savage's settings say a lot using just a few pieces of furniture.
And there's an admirable leading performance by Rosalyn Coleman, whose Esther is equal parts charming sweetness and steely determination. She receives strong support from Stephen Conrad Moore, whose terrific Caribbean accent wins over both Esther and the audience. There's also a touching performance by Maury Ginsberg as Mr. Marks and a sexy, sassy turn by Eisa Davis as Mayme.
Act one of Intimate Apparel ends on a lovely note, with George making the journey from Panama to New York City to marry Esther. But in act two, things go awry - not just for the marriage, but for the play as well. First comes a wedding night scene full of coarse comedy that doesn't seem connected to the graceful drama that has preceded it. Then the marriage stumbles in ways so hoary and predictable that it's almost hard to believe that both acts were written by the same playwright. Will George turn out to be less of an angel than his letters promised? Will his inability to find work put a strain on the marriage? Will he stray? Will deep, dark secrets be revealed? Will Esther find an inner strength she never knew she had?
Will we care?
By the end of act two, much of the good will the characters had built up during act one - plus the points Nottage had been making about class consciousness and feminism - evaporate in a mist of melodrama. It's a disappointing end to a play that has many moments of enchantment.
Intimate Apparel is a play with a lot to say about society of a century ago and about how much - and how little - has changed. Yet the plot Lynn Nottage has devised isn't worthy of the significant themes she explores, and this lovely, stately production can't hide the holes in the play's construction.
Intimate Apparel runs through Sunday, April 16 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $31 to $49, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.