Watching Lyric Stage Company’s production of Intimate Apparel, directed by Summer L. Williams, I came to an unexpected conclusion: in this production, the important period piece finds its strongest stride in the individual and intensely personal more than in its historicity. There is so much to enjoy here: set in 1905, the play follows Esther Mills (Lindsey McWhorter), a black seamstress who spends her “spinster” days (she’s 35) sewing intimate apparel for wealthy white patrons and black ladies-of-the-night-alike. All who know her appreciate her warmth, kindness, and skill: the most appreciative of her friends is a Hasidic shopkeeper, Mr. Marks (Nael Nacer), who recognizes a kindred spirit in their mutual admiration of beautiful, painstakingly handcrafted fabrics. Everything changes when Esther strikes up a correspondence with a Barbadian laborer in Panama, a Mr. George Armstrong (Brandon G. Green); the promise of romance, marriage, and a new life with a husband threatens the life Esther has labored so hard and so long to stitch together and improve.
Lynn Nottage’s play offers much-needed perspective on the experience of many American “others”: of turn-of-the-century immigrants, of racial and religious minorities, and of sexually-repressed and downtrodden women who question their worth in the bedroom as well as in the city square or church social. But although this production was attentive to all of these fascinating dramaturgical details, with its period props and backdrops (scenic design by Anne Sherer), ragtime tunes (composition and musical direction by Allyssa Jones, sound design by Kelsey Jarboe), beautiful costumes (design by Amanda Mujica), proper accents (dialect coaching by Bryn Austin), and excellent projected photographs (lighting design by Chris Hudacs), I found its true value in the individual experience it examines.
My theater companion told me at intermission that she looked for clues to historically place the play (in terms of the date the Panama Canal was being built, of the practice of using white dresses for brides, etc.). I confess I was too wrapped up in the broader themes of the piece to do the same. I was drawn by how these gifted actors explored the potential for deceit in epistolary self-portrayal (still relevant in our social-media-crazed generation); the lengths single and married women will knowingly go, to relieve the agonizing burden of loneliness, of the dearth of intimacy and physical affection; and the inner strength of the protagonist that leads the play to an unexpectedly hopeful ending.
My favorite of Esther’s tics was her tendency to burst into giggles; her laughter was matronly in its girlishness and girlish in its matronliness. McWhorter wonderfully captured Esther’s dual complexity, her romantic inexperience folded into a world-weariness that remains unable to crush her spirit in spite of poverty and betrayal. She maintains dignity in the face of criticism from the boarding house owner, Mrs. Dickson (Cheryl D. Singleton), in the face of casual racism from her sympathetic and sexually-frustrated patron, Mrs. Van Buren (Amanda Ruggiero), and when facing barbs from her frenemy, Mayme (Kris Sidberry). Her unspoken and unrequited love affair with Marks made for many of the high points in the production. Nacer was excellent in his portrayal of the pure Mr. Marks, his tenderness and unquestionable devotion to Esther evident even in his careful handling of the fabrics they both admire and love.
Green was just as subtle in his shifting voice and physicality, from the gentle and romantic voice of the letters to the harsh reality that arrives at Esther’s door via Havana, Cuba. The laborer is merciless in a thousand and one brusque gestures that are more brutal in their neglect than their violence: I actually felt slightly queasy watching Armstrong scrounge up all the of the hard-earned dollar bills that Esther pulls from the gutted crazy quilt.
The women in Esther’s life match the impact these men cause. I felt a bit uncertain about Sidberry’s Mayme; while I enjoyed her early brazenness and musical disposition, I had a hard time reading her emotions towards the end of the play (how much remorse, how much personal disappointment did she really feel over what she had done? I couldn’t quite tell). While Ruggiero’s languid, slightly ham-handed Southern portrayal of Mrs. Van Buren got a bit grating in the early scenes, I was very impressed with the subtleness of her physicality. Even before her shocking display of repressed desire near the end of the play, I had already been struck by the quiet yet intense reaction Ruggiero conveyed when Esther’s hands ran along the length of Mrs. Van Buren’s satin corset.
While many plays I’ve seen lag in their second acts, dragging and failing to keep pace with the first, this production’s second act picked up in momentum, concluding with scenes that particularly moved me. I’m thrilled to see (and recommend) another great play whose playwright, director, and protagonist are women of color, and women with the talent required to powerfully covey a story that too oft goes “unidentified” and untold.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of Intimate Apparel is playing now through March 14th, 2015, at 140 Clarendon St in Boston.