Set in 1905 Manhattan, Intimate Apparel is the story of Esther, an appealing, shy 35-year-old "maiden lady" who makes (and takes great and justifiable pride in) intimate apparel for ladies of white society. She resides, as she has for many years, in a boarding house run by the vivacious, chatty (and sometimes catty) Mrs. Dickson, and has a close relationship with one of her patrons, Mrs. Van Buren, whose forced gaiety is a cover-up for her waning marriage. She has a warm friendship with a charming Jewish fabric supplier, who might be a match for Esther if it weren't for the race/class distinction of the era, and the strict mandates of his religious beliefs. The only person Esther really has to confide in is Mayme, a proverbial hooker with a heart of gold and a talent for playing the piano. Esther's life is irrevocably altered by a correspondence with George Armstrong, a South American charmer who is working on the Panama Canal. Since Esther can neither read nor write, most of her letters to George are penned, ala Cyrano De Bergerac, by her customer, Mrs. Van Buren. After many letters, George proposes via mail, and books passage to Manhattan.
The generally light-hearted and comedic tone of act one gives way to a darker, sadder, second half as Esther and George's postal courtship wanes in the real world, amidst the revelation of many sad realities. Yet Esther's greatest love, and most abiding relationship, with her craft and her sewing machine weathers it all, in an upbeat, non-hackneyed conclusion.
In the pivotal role of Esther, Gwendolyn Mulamba overcomes some initial hesitancy and muffled line readings to fully win the audience's heart. Her Esther is a keen listener and a non-judgmental friend, and the actress glides between her serious and comic moments with effortless aplomb. Yvette Ganier is jubilant in the role of Mayme, and when she and Mulamba break into an impromptu moment of song and cavorting at the piano, it is a joy to behold. Demene E. Hall, an actress who grows more striking with every role she takes on, is pitch perfect as the well-meaning if nosy Mrs. Dickson. Marc Jablon as the fabric seller Mr. Marks is very touching in his scenes with Mulamba, the two actors saying as much with awkward silences and glances as they do with dialogue.
Mari Nelson as Mrs. Van Buren gets many of the plays funniest lines, and could easily take them down a notch and be even more winning. Albert Jones is the perfect physical embodiment of George Armstrong, as ruggedly handsome as Mulamba's Esther is plain, but the actor overdoes his South American dialect periodically, preventing George's exchanges with Mayme from being all they might be. In general, director Jackie Moscou succeeds better with the play's sunnier first half than its more downbeat second, though not to a major extent.
Carey Wong's set is like a wondrous game board, with each area of the stage richly embodying a certain character's domain, and enhanced by the stellar lighting design of Allen Lee Hughes, and Deb Trout's sharp eye for detail on her costume design, several pieces being quite integral to the plot.
Above all, Nottage's play is a great vehicle for actors. It bears the stamp of a script that would greatly appeal to the likes of Oprah Winfrey or Halle Berry, but it doesn't need big names to weave its spell on an audience.
Intimate Apparel runs through September 24 at Intiman Theatre in Seattle Center. For more information, visit www.intiman.org.