A Turn-of-the-Century Seamstress Sews “Intimate Apparel;” Lynn Nottage’s Romantic Drama Plays at McCarter Theatre
Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel opened at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre May 12. The program notes state that Ms. Nottage, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat is currently on Broadway, has the following artistic mission: “to tell the stories of forgotten people, those whose lives did not make it into the records through which we, as Americans, chronicle the history of our country.” Inspired by a photograph of her great-grandmother, a Barbadian seamstress who lived in New York City at the turn of the last century, Ms. Nottage succeeds with this 2003 drama.
Esther Mills, a 35-year-old African American seamstress patterned after the playwright’s great-grandmother, rents a room in a boarding house owned by Mrs. Dickson. Esther creates “intimate apparel” for affluent women such as the unhappily married Mrs. Van Buren; and for Mayme, a prostitute and talented pianist.
Headstrong and occupied by her work, the single Esther nevertheless is unhappy about her lack of a romantic partner. “Ironically, she creates beautiful lingerie for wealthy socialites and prostitutes, helping them fulfill their desires, but remains unfulfilled herself,” Ms. Nottage writes in This Is My Best, a literary anthology.
Esther purchases fabrics from Mr. Marks, a Romanian immigrant with whom she shares an appreciation of the exquisite textiles he procures for her. When Mr. Marks offers some Japanese silk to Esther, she affectionately grasps his hand — which he quickly withdraws. Esther assumes his reticence is due to her race. However, he explains that his Orthodox Jewish beliefs do not permit him to touch any woman who is not his wife or a relative, and that he is engaged to a Romanian woman he has never met.
However, Esther unexpectedly receives a letter from a Barbadian man named George Armstrong. Along with the son of Esther’s deacon, George digs on the Panama Canal. George writes that [the deacon’s son] “speaks so highly of his church that I find comfort in his recollections,” and requests that Esther correspond with him. Unable to read or write, Esther asks Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren to read George’s letters and ghostwrite responses for her.
The correspondence develops into a courtship, in which George eventually asks Esther to marry him. Esther accepts, even though Mrs. Dickson warns her not to rush into marriage. Mr. Marks gives Esther some of his finest material with which to make her wedding dress.
Unfortunately, George proves to be quite different from the man Esther was led to expect. On their wedding night, George fails to appreciate a gift Esther gives to him: a jacket she made out of the Japanese silk she has purchased from Mr. Marks.
Esther sews undergarments for a living, so it is telling that as a gift for her husband she makes a jacket — a garment to be worn over shirts. Perhaps that is why George — who cares only about physical intimacy — cannot appreciate it. Later, this jacket will be crucial to the story.
The unloving relationship is not helped when George wastes the life savings that Esther has sewn into a quilt. Sewn from disparate and previously used materials, the quilt can be interpreted as a metaphor for Esther’s relationship with George, which was built on letters infused with the wishes and experiences of other people. The quilt also could be a symbol of 1905 New York, with its diverse population.
Ms. Nottage knows how to write sparkling dialogue (“I thought I’d lost you to a competitor,” Mr. Marks pointedly tells Esther after she accepts George’s proposal of marriage), but in crafting a drama that illuminates the extent to which words can be deceptive, she also knows when not to use dialogue. This affords a talented director such as Jade King Carroll, with her cast and mostly female creative team, the latitude to create a layered production.
“One of the things I wanted to do in working with the set is connect New York City — during the Industrial Revolution — and a corset,” Carroll reveals in a promotional video for the production. “You look at the bridges that are being built, the subways, they all kind of have the same boning structure. All of that’s going into 1905 New York [while] this strong, beautiful, single woman is sitting with this tiny machine, creating the same structure.”
Alexis Distler’s set suggests a bridge, or a building under construction, in keeping with Ms. Carroll’s concept. There are two levels to the set, with two compartments to each level. This establishes the sense of being in a New York City building.
Ms. Carroll’s direction uses the multi-leveled set to create an Upstairs, Downstairs subtext. Esther’s clients occupy the upper level, while Esther and Mr. Marks occupy the lower level, underlining the connection between them. As Esther and Mr. Marks each hold one end of a rare textile, apparel enables intimacy — the only intimacy that societal circumstances will permit them to experience.
Dede M. Ayite’s costumes effectively evoke the period. The color palette consists mostly of black, white, and grey; the smoking jacket offers a splash of color, as does a dress worn by Mayme in the second act.
Ragtime music also establishes the setting. The genre is well captured by “Mayme’s Song,” a piano composition that Baikida Carroll — the director’s father — wrote for the production.
Quincy Tyler Bernstine infuses Esther with dignity and hidden strength. Esther is humble, but she is a woman with an unbending moral center and a sense of personal integrity. Ms. Bernstine effectively portrays all these aspects of Esther’s personality.
Galen King, an actor particularly skilled in the use of body language, brings a subtle and oily — but predatory — aggression to the role of George. This is countered by the gracious sincerity that Tasso Feldman brings to Mr. Marks.
Jessica Frances Dukes and Kate MacCluggage each bring an exuberant worldliness to, respectively, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren. As Mrs. Dickson, Brenda Pressley is warmly maternal.
Like the rare textiles for which Esther and Mr. Marks share a mutual appreciation, Intimate Apparel is delicate, unique, and exquisitely crafted — both in its script and production. With a photograph as its genesis the play is a somewhat gritty, but poignant, snapshot of another time.