BWW Reviews: A Small but Deeply Moving Story of INTIMATE APPAREL at Artists Rep
Loneliness is a hard thing to dramatize. It's the absence of meaningful human contact, and theatre is all about human contact. Lynn Nottage's play Intimate Apparel finds a way to make loneliness not only dramatic, but incredibly moving. You may occasionally anticipate how the story will play out, but you won't guess how the main character will react to the new events, and that makes her a great fulcrum for a story.
Intimate Apparel begins with Esther, a 35-year-old single black woman in 1905. Her father was a slave, and she picked cotton until she made her way to New York City at seventeen. She lives alone in a boarding house and sews fancy undergarments for society wives and prostitutes alike, buying her fabric from a gentle Romanian Jew who sets aside his best fabric for her. Esther somehow receives a letter from a man working on the Panama Canal, a native of Barbados who says he knows someone from her church and has heard fine things about her. She wants to write back but is illiterate, so her clients offer to help.
This might seem like a mishmosh of Ragtime and Cyrano de Bergerac, but Nottage has other thoughts on her mind. While we're made aware of the constraints placed upon the people of 1905, the women being laced into their tight corsets, the Jew unable to touch a woman he's not related to, we also see the constraints they place upon themselves. Esther lives by strict rules; she sews her money into the quilt on her bed, saving up till she can open a beauty parlor of her own. She goes to church. She's never been with a man. She listens to Mayme, the prostitute, talk about her clients and cannot imagine that life, nor can she understand Mrs. Van Buren's complaints about her wealthy husband. Mrs. Dickson, who runs the boarding house, keeps urging Esther to socialize and find a husband, but Esther isn't willing to settle for just anyone. Eventually the man she's been writing to, George Armstrong, shows up in New York wanting to marry her - and that's just Act One.
Michael Mendelson's direction treats the play delicately, which is the best approach. There are no big knockout scenes, no huge shouting matches, no big plot twists. This is a story of incidents that accumulate in your mind until the ending of the play, when you understand all of what Esther has endured, and all that she wants yet cannot have. The actors work simply, not overstating their roles, and you keep leaning forward in your chair, wanting to know more.
In a play about clothing, the costume designer has an enormous responsibility, and Sarah Gahagan rises to the occasion. Everyone is dressed appropriately for the period, of course, but it goes beyond that. George is forever shucking his clothes, while Esther is forever buttoned up. The examples of Esther's work, as worn by the other women in the show, are stunning without being flashy, and the tiny details of buttons and ribbons seem perfect. Even the modest black clothes worn by Mr. Marks, the fabric dealer, are just right.
But all the details here are perfect. Jack O'Brien's set contains four playing spaces, all pushed up against each other (reflecting the crowded nature of life in Manhattan), each with a few pieces of furniture that correctly tell us about the person who lives or works there. Brent J. Sullivan's lighting sets the mood for each scene and helps us focus on Esther's emotional temperature.
I can't say a negative thing about the cast. Demene E. Hall as Mrs. Dickson, who runs the boarding house, only has a few scenes, but her bearing has an impact on everything around her. Chris Harder shows us a big heart underneath Mr. Marks's layers of clothing. Sara Hennessy as Mrs. Van Buren shows us her character's desperate loneliness and longing for contact while still managing to be funny, while Dedra D. Woods as Mayme is all smart remarks and easy jokes until she realizes how she's been used - and how she's betrayed Esther - which brings us to a new side of her character. Vin Shambry finds both the courtly and selfish sides of George, and humanizes someone who could have been a villain.
At first, it doesn't appear that Ayanna Berkshire is doing much as Esther. The character's modest nature forces her to be concentrated in her effects and circumspect in her behavior. But as Esther's world widens, Berkshire gathers momentum, until by the end of the play you're completely in her corner, longing for a happy ending or at least a ray of sunshine in her life. Esther learns a few things along the way, but Berkshire is an incredibly intelligent actress who makes a complete emotional journey without having to shout or scream. It's a series of tiny gestures, particularly when she handles clothing (hers and the other characters'), that encapsulate just how lonely and complicated Esther is.
Intimate Apparel is a small, beautiful story told well, without embellishment. How I wish more theatre artists would learn from this example. I'm grateful I had the chance to see it.