PlayMakers Repertory Company has opened a deeply satisfying production in the Paul Green Theater. Beautifully directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Intimate Apparel offers the kind of intimate sharing of lives that is one of theatre’s most wondrous aspects. Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play was written nearly a century after it is set, and it is particular in its attention to the New York of 1905 that shapes its action and characters, but it is timeless in its delicate revelations of the souls of the women and men who people it. The basics of the story are not unusual, yet Nottage inserts at least three instances in which circumstances or behavior are such that they draw vocal response from the audience. During Sunday’s matinee (very well attended, and not just by old people) one moaning gasp in unison from the crowd nearly stopped the action on stage.
In other words, Intimate Apparel engages us at a deep emotional level. Certainly it concerns social questions, but it lets them radiate from the lived core. It doesn’t beat us over the head with its intellectual concepts; it never breaks the fourth wall. After all these years, I still find it miraculous that a play, with fragments, can let you look at a distant world complete–and tilt that distant world into a mirror of oneself and one’s own time.
Intimate Apparel centers on Esther, a black woman who made her way out of the South by picking berries and selling them along the trek from North Carolina. She lives in a boarding house, and from her little room has made a career as a fine seamstress, sewing fancy corsets and lingerie. She loves her work, but she’s 35 and lonesome, but also proud and particular and chaste. Esther is embodied by Rasool Jahan, who never fails to make the actress invisible–only the character is present on stage. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who plays Esther’s landlady, the widowed Mrs. Dickson, has the same quality as an actress, which makes the scenes between the two women particularly fine.
One of Esther’s clients is an unhappily married rich white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, played by the lovely third year graduate student Allison Altman. Altman’s always a pleasure to watch, although she has not yet reached the point where she can subsume herself completely in the character. Nottage uses Mrs. Van Buren to highlight social and racial stratification, and to promote the plot, but she’s not unsympathetic to the woman–she’s somewhat irksome, but not two-dimensional.
To find the gorgeous fabrics and laces for her rich ladies’ underclothes, Esther frequents the shop of one Mr. Marks, a lonesome Romanian Jew who has long been awaiting the accomplishment of an arranged marriage to a woman still in Romania. Benjamin Curns, another third year student in the Professional Acting Program, gives the most fully realized performance of his time at Carolina as Mr. Marks. He and Esther share a deep love of fabric–and maybe they could share more, but it cannot be. The scenes between them pierced my heart.
But it is handsome George who upends Esther’s life, with the help of her girlfriend, Mayme. Myles Bullock, another third year MFA student, is believable, touching and infuriating as George, the Barbadian laborer and pen pal admirer Esther marries. Poor George, thrust into the cauldron of Jim Crow New York, is not man enough to withstand the pressures and offenses and the destruction of his dreams, and even though one would like to get up and punch him, he is pitiable, and Bullock makes us feel George’s frustration to the degree that we can almost have sympathy for his profligacy.
Mayme, played with relish and a fine physicality by first year graduate student Shanelle Nicole Leonard, is the foil to the self-contained, working-for-the-future Esther. Mayme is a bawdy prostitute, living only in the now, the sensuous now. Yet she and Esther are good friends. Until. You know what will happen. But you don’t know what it will unleash in Esther. There are so few plots in life and in theatre, but so many twists.
Some plays don’t need much in the way of design, but this one is well-served by high production values. Bobbi Owen’s costumes are great–each perfect for its character. The scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee is rich and detailed, providing on the thrust stage several settings for the various locations so that the story is not interrupted by the moving of furniture. Her design is completed by the wonderful projections by Dominic Abbenante, and lighting designer Xavier Pierce has done a very interesting thing: the lighting is unusually soft, with fewer lumens overall, and this gives us the feeling of entering one of the old photographs used so effectively in the projections.
This fine production continues at PlayMakers through Feb. 12.