… spinning a play from a photograph …

Intimate Apparel is a good play, worth seeing, though it’s not a you-must-see-it play like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (2008) or her more recent Sweat, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Nottage is a fine, intelligent playwright and to spend the evening with her through the medium of this play, written early in her career (2003), is satisfying and thought-provoking.

For Intimate Apparel, the playwright’s imagination spins off from a vintage photograph of an African American seamstress in New York City in 1905, and other photos of African American women of the time.  The central character, Esther (Kelly McCreary), a quiet, hard-working African American who lives in Mrs. Dickson’s (Portia) boarding house in New York City and sews fine lingerie for wealthy white women.

Though inward and retiring, Esther has friends, including the motherly Mrs. Dickson, and the prostitute and would-be serious pianist, Mayme (Shayna Small).  And Esther’s open to conversation, as with Mr. Marks (Blake DeLong), the orthodox Jewish fabric seller on the lower East Side from whom she buys her silks.

But Esther feels alone.  And at thirty-five, she feels the passage of time and slipping away of opportunities.

In the charming and endearing irony of the play, this quiet, modest-dressing, no frills woman who makes fancy lingerie for other women is longing for love.

Until a dark-skinned Hispanic man, George (Edward O’Bienis) a laborer working on the Panama Canal, starts writing to her from Panama.  As in Athol Fugard’s play Blood Knot, the correspondence between a lonely man and woman who don’t otherwise know each other becomes increasingly romantic and sexually tinged. And like Zachariah in Blood Knot, Esther is illiterate, so she has to turn to someone else to hold up her side of the correspondence: her letters are written by her customer, the wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka) for whom Esther sews beribboned bustiers with waist-cinching drawstrings.  In some fine staging, George, spot lit, proclaims his side of this correspondence in a rough Anthony Quinn-like voice from various points in the aisles of the theater.

“I love you,” he finally says, and — we sense his opportunism — makes his way from Panama to New York.

Once they meet, how will they live up to each others’ expectations?

Act I has many touching and illuminating moments – for awhile I thought we were on board for a great play.  The second act, however, is overloaded with coincidence and some unconvincing characterizations.  It provides some pleasant and original surprises among the sad inevitabilities, but doesn’t always ring true.

The actors for the most part do justice to the complexities of Nottage’s richly written characters.  Kelly McCreary reveals the passionate determination of modest Esther although at times her inwardness becomes a mask-like lack of expression. Edward O’Biennis brings out George’s mix of awareness of decency and brutal self-centeredness.  Julia Motyka as Mrs. Van Buren shows us the unsettled tension in this woman who seems to have it all, though the playwright throws in a red herring about the nature of her conflicts.  Blake DeLong conveys well Mr. Marks’ tender and remarkable inner conflicts.  Portia’s Mrs. Dickson is a woman of welcome humor who will never let you down.  Shayna Small, though she speaks too softly for the size of the theater, is a sweet Mayme.

The plays by Lynn Nottage that I know, Ruined (2008) and the more recent Sweat, both — with some staging detours — unroll fundamentally in the single space of a bar where the characters come and go and the story unfurls.  In Intimate Apparel, we move around and I missed the effective unity of place of the other plays.  On the other hand, in this play, a central bed is a visual unifying focus: it’s slept in, argued on, made, unmade and remade according to dramatic locale.  The focus on the central bed underlines the issues of love and sex in Esther’s life, and by implication, the traditional centrality of “the bed” in women’s life in general.

Intimate Apparel is set in an historical context, with the photograph of the Black seamstress in 1905 a projected image, but the play seems more interested in Esther’s emotional odyssey than in her time and place.  The effects of Esther’s race on her life, and on her relationship to the White Mrs. Van Buren, are certainly made clear.  The historical note in the program lets us know that in the period there were considerably more African American women than African American men in New York City, providing a context for Esther’s romance through correspondence.  But issues of gender and private life, even more than the larger vistas of cruelty, injustice and race of Nottage’ better known plays, are the focus of Intimate Apparel.  It is indeed an intimate play.

Intimate Apparel is directed by Scott Shwartz, the Artistic Director of Bay Street Theater.  It plays at the Bay Street Theater, on the wharf in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY, through July 30, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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