Reviewed by Judy Richter
Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" was named best play of 2004 by the New York Drama Critics' Circle for good reason. It's both a fascinating character study and an insightful look at New York in 1905, a time of great societal change. TheatreWorks is presenting a first-rate production of the play directed by Anthony J. Haney.
Nottage bases the central character, Esther Mills (Laiona Michelle), on her great-grandmother, who was a seamstress in New York City in 1905. Esther, a 35-year-old black woman who lives in a boarding house in Manhattan, migrated from the South some 15 years ago. Even though she's illiterate, she's a talented seamstress who supports herself by sewing, mostly lingerie and corsets for a range of women from a black prostitute, Mayme (Tracey Conyer Lee), to white society women like Mrs. Van Buren (Lisa Anne Morrison). Reserved and discrete, she goes into their boudoirs and listens to their most intimate thoughts. Mayme has no feelings for her customers, but she's a gifted pianist who can play both the classics and ragtime. Mrs. Van Buren is trapped in a loveless marriage and longs to break free.
Although the highly principled Esther is independent, she worries that she'll never marry. Her well-meaning but busybody landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Robin Braxton), tries to fix her up with various men, but none of them suits Esther. Her outlook changes when she gets a letter from a stranger, George Armstrong (Bryan Hicks). A laborer from Barbados working on construction of the Panama Canal, he writes descriptive letters about his experiences and talks of his loneliness. She responds via letters that Mrs. Van Buren helps her write. Over time, he says he loves her and wants to marry her.
They do get married shortly after he arrives in New York, but disillusion soon sets in. He becomes frustrated because he can't find work, apparently because the bosses won't hire black men no matter how well qualified they are. He also has little appreciation for the things that Esther makes for him. Meanwhile, Esther has been buying fabrics from Mr. Marks (Jackson Davis), a Jewish immigrant from Rumania. He saves some of his finest, most delicate fabrics for her because he knows she shares his appreciation of their quality and beauty. One can see the rapport growing between them, but his religion forbids him to touch any woman other than relatives and his fiance, who is still in Rumania and whom he has never met because the engagement was arranged by their families.
Nottage has created characters who are interesting and multi-dimensional, qualities brought out in Haney's direction and the actors' portrayals. Each one has at least one moment in the spotlight, such as Braxton's moving scene when Mrs. Dickson describes the difficulties faced by her mother, a hard-working washerwoman.
Eric E. Sinkkonen's set facilitates quick scene changes, complemented by Steven B. Mannshardt and Chad Bonaker's atmospheric lighting, including the illusion of gas lamps. Allison Connor's costumes, especially Esther's creations, are lovely, and Cliff Caruthers' sound adds to the ambience. William Liberatore serves as musical director for Mayme's piano playing and the playful duet that she and Esther sing.
"Intimate Apparel" is a most rewarding play, especially as produced by TheatreWorks.