Seeing the name Lynn Nottage on the playbill for Ensemble Theatre’s “Intimate Apparel” should be enough to tell you that the simple story slowly unfolding on stage is more than it appears to be.
After all, the playwright earned a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship and is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – twice – and nearly every accolade available. And she has penned some of the most powerful modern plays about marginalized Americans and lost voices.
This one, which opened Off-Broadway in 2004, takes place in New York City in 1905. There we find a lonely and illiterate 35-year-old African-American seamstress named Esther (Kimberly L. Brown). She supports herself as a maker of luxurious undergarments for women the likes of the wealthy southerner Mrs. Van Buren (Diane Frankhauser), who is desperate to rekindle her husband’s affections. Esther purchases her materials from Mr. Marks (Craig Joseph), a soft-spoken Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant whose affection for and attraction to her kindness, appreciation of fine textiles and gentle touch are forbidden by faith and the times. She is friends with an endearing prostitute and ragtime pianist named Mayme (Zyrece Montgomery), rents a room at the boarding house of the gossip-mongering Mrs. Dickson (Reva Golden), and is being courted by post by a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados named George Armstrong (Leilani Barrett), who intends to marry her.
These characters are initially drawn with broad strokes and familiar tropes, due in large part to the fact that they are based on an old photograph of Nottage's great-grandmother that the playwright discovered while cleaning out her grandmother's brownstone. The woman’s face was stripped of all emotion and little about her life was known. The few bare facts that have become family lore are revealed in the first act of the play, as is insight into the social and racial barriers of working class people at the time.
The second act consists of a more imagined history, where the romanticized complexities, distinctive nuances and undesirable traits that serve to flesh out these characters and their relationships are brought to the forefront.
The Ensemble Theatre production of this play benefits from the truly sterling performances and rich portrayals turned in by each member of this cast. And director Sarah May does a wonderful job of not allowing the melodrama that resides within this story – which is being embraced in a new “Intimate Apparel” opera coming to Lincoln Center Theater in NYC later this year – to work its way into the storytelling.
Scenic/lighting designer Ian Hinz’s two-tiered set provides permanent space for Esther’s bedroom, Mr. Mark’s showroom, Mrs. Van Buren’s dressing room and Mayme’s parlor, and his rear projections provide sepia toned context for each location. All this is intended to facilitate seamless transitions from one location to another and from one character’s plot point to the next. And Katie Atkinson and Jill Kenderes’ period costuming is spot-on as well.
Yet, flat moments occur in the course of this production due to slow-to-respond lighting cues that decelerate the proceedings and throw off the actors’ timing, and the lighting design allows what is occurring in one isolated part of the set to bleed over to the others even when the lights go to black, which distracts the audience. Also distracting are the off-colors that often appear on the actors’ heads and bodies due to some peculiar overhead lighting choices by Hinz.
Still, there is much to admire about this leisurely unfolding production of this meticulously crafted and pensive play.