Intimate Apparel

Tracey A. Leigh and John Eric Parker
Lynn Nottage's celebrated play Intimate Apparel is a poignant study of a woman living in a time when self-sufficiency was not something women strived for. Esther, a 35-year-old, plain, quiet and modest African-American, is a talented seamstress  specializing in the creation of detailed corsets and other undergarments for the wealthy women of 1905 Manhattan. She lives in a spare boarding room and counts as friends Mrs. Dickson, the boisterous landlady; brassy prostitute Mayme; and Mr. Marks, a very reserved Jewish cloth seller. Life opens brightly for Esther when she begins a relationship by written letter with George, a Barbados man working on the Panama Canal "introduced" to Esther by a mutual acquaintance. She is embarrassed, but must enlist the aid of her friends to participate in the correspondence as she cannot read or write. The bleakness of her life is relieved immensely when George's words are read to her; she imagines and is enlivened by the vibrant descriptions of the hard life on the canal. Soon George suggests they meet - he will come to New York. This sets into motion more changes and illuminations for Esther.

Nottage has created interesting and tangible characters, and the City Theatre cast fleshes them out effectively. As Esther, Tracey A. Leigh keeps her emotions below the surface, using subtle changes of expression and demeanor to share Esther's inner thoughts with the audience. Credit also goes to director Diane Rodriguez for allowing the right level of nuance to be displayed. The scenes with Esther and Mr. Marks (played superbly by Michael Goodfriend) are among the most captivating in the production, as the two very guarded people verge on crossing the line of their professional relationship. George is played robustly, with a vigorous physicality that defines the character, by John Eric Parker. The talented Maria Becoates-Bey and Linda Haston provide ample support, with perhaps a tad too little subtlety, as Mayme and Mrs. Dickson, respectively. As the conflicted and looney Mrs. Van Buren, Erica Highberg does an excellent job with a complex character; we think we know her, and then she surprises us.

Tony Ferrieri's beautiful and illustrative set is impressive and adapts easily to different settings, though it is so extremely raked (or appears so) that it seemed at times that the actors are trying carefully to prevent chairs and other set pieces from moving unintentionally. His work, combined with Pei-Chi Su's top notch costumes, and effectual lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski and sound by Elizabeth Atkinson, provide the atmosphere without overpowering the characterizations, which are the stars of this play.

Intimate Apparel continues at City Theatre through May 27. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit

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-- Ann Miner

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