In 2015, Everyman Theatre produced an acclaimed run of Playwright Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined. Tazewell Thompson directed and actors Jade Wheeler, Bueka Uwemedimo, and Resident Company Member Dawn Ursula were among the cast. Director Thompson and these talented actors have been reunited for Everyman’s current production, another celebrated Lynn Nottage play, Intimate Apparel.
Intimate Apparel is the story of a woman named Esther. It’s 1905 and 35-year-old Esther lives in a rooming house with other single ladies. She is a skilled seamstress who makes her living creating beautiful intimate apparel – intricately detailed corsets, undergarments, and lingerie. Her talent is matched only by her discretion, which has served her well. Her clients range from a high society, Fifth Avenue lady who wants to have a baby, to a hardscrabble prostitute with big dreams of becoming a concert pianist someday. Esther has her own goals. She has been saving her money for nearly 20 years to open a beauty salon where black women can go to relax and be pampered and treated like society ladies. But she also dreams of getting married. Worried that it may be getting too late for her to ever find a good man to wed, she is surprised when she starts receiving letters from a potential suitor, George Armstrong. Could this be the man of her dreams? She’s going to find out. After months of letters back and forth to Panama, where he’s been working on the new canal, George is coming to New York – and he’s got marriage on his mind.
Dawn Ursula plays Esther and it’s flat-out her best performance that I’ve seen. Esther is the heart of Intimate Apparel; everything revolves around her and her relationships with the other characters. Ursula’s performance is a pleasure to watch; she imbues Esther with strength and a quiet dignity that carries her through the joys and trials of her life.
George, adeptly played by Bueka Uwemedimo, is both a joy and a trial to Esther. Over the course of their sweet, epistolary courtship, Esther – and the audience – fall in love with George. Uwemedimo exudes charm. He has a confident stance; a broad, disarming smile; and a voice that is at once musical and masculine, his melodic Barbadian accent perfected under the guidance of Dialect Coach Gary Logan.
The contents of the couple’s letters are disclosed through a series of cleverly staged exchanges. Orchestrated by a team of complementary designers – the beautiful, versatile set by Donald Eastman; meaningful lighting by Stephen Quandt; top notch period costumes (even for the scene changers) by David Burdick; sound design by Fabian Obispo that takes us from railyard to tropical rainstorm; and Jillian Mathews’ well-utilized properties – the elements combine to present Esther in New York and George in Panama as effectively as a split screen video.
With Ursula’s compelling Esther at the center, her relationships with the rest of the characters are like spokes on a wheel. As we learn her story, the real-life story of Playwright Nottage’s great-grandmother, through these relationships, we are starkly reminded that the stories of most people – particularly African-American women like Nottage’s seamstress forbear – are never told. Dramas and triumphs and heroism and villainy, all lost to history.
Through Esther, we meet Mrs. Dixon, the widowed owner of the boarding house where Esther has lived for 18 years – just over half her life. Jenn Walker plays Mrs. Dixon with just the right mix of longtime friend and busybody landlady.
We also become acquainted with Mrs. Van Buren, a bored Southern Belle – flawlessly played by Resident Company Member Beth Hylton – who is married to a wealthy man whose attention she fears is wandering as she continues to be unable to conceive a child. Esther provides her with sexy lingerie, including a corset Van Buren finds deliciously scandalous because it is the twin of one she made for a “singer” in a downtown club.
Mayme does sing, but she makes her living in the “oldest profession.” Jade Wheeler plays the plucky prostitute as an upbeat dreamer. Down, but not out. Listening to Wheeler’s lovely voice as she accompanies herself onstage on an old timey piano, you can believe that if Mayme had the good fortune of being born into a higher class in American turn of the century society, her aspirations for a respectable job as a pianist and singer might have been realized.
The final spoke on Esther’s wheel of relationships is my favorite: her fabric vendor. Drew Kopas, who last wowed me as Pip in Everyman’s Great Expectations, plays Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish immigrant from Romania who sells Esther the fine lace and delicate fabrics she transforms into intimate apparel.
It doesn’t occupy the most stage time, but the relationship between Kopas’ Mr. Marks and Ursula’s Esther enchanted me. They are kindred spirits, sharing an understanding of and appreciation for things others would not even notice – the hand stitching on piece of Japanese silk, the thread count of a piece of fabric, the intricate detail in a pattern of lace. Prohibited by his religion to ever touch – not even a chaste handshake – the tension and sweetness of their affection is palpable.
The unmistakable yearning Kopas displays whenever Marks and Esther must part company is so affecting, in part, because of Director Thompson’s facility with the power of timing. In not only the lingering glances and quiet resignation of Marks and Esther, but throughout the play, Thompson gives the story room to take hold and creates moments of great impact.
If Vincent Lancisi was betting that lightning would strike twice if he brought together Tazewell Thompson and members of the outstanding cast of Ruined to put on another Lynn Nottage play at Everyman, he hit the jackpot. Intimate Apparel is, by turns, beautiful and tragic, hopeful and heartbreaking. With exceptional acting and beautifully coordinated design, Intimate Apparel is 100% worth putting on your Autumn To Do list. Put it toward the top, though; it closes on November 19.*
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Available across the street at the Atrium Garage. The cost is $11.00 for those attending the theater.
* Chances are Lynn Nottage is going to keep writing award-winning plays – she is the first woman to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, after all. And it’s a pretty safe bet that Vinny will fall in love with one of them and it will make its way into an Everyman season. He may even get the fantastic cast from Intimate Apparel to perform. But do you want to risk it? The answer is no. Besides, Esther’s story wants to be heard. You should hear it.