Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel opened to a standing ovation on Friday, Feb. 9, at the Fine Arts Center. And no wonder. Tender performances, a stellar script, a well-planned set and intentional direction made for a nearly flawless production, marred only by a few line missteps. I’d see it again if I thought my heart could take it.
Nottage’s protagonist Esther, an African-American lingerie seamstress, lives in a Manhattan boarding house in 1905, 35 years old and unmarried. Though the story is technically about her journey to find love, I would hardly call Intimate Apparel a romance. It’s more complicated than that; loaded with historical references, and enriched by ever-present racial tension that’s never disrespectfully overdone for the sake of drama.
Lauren Hooper as Esther delivers a sensitive and subtle performance. She conveys, above all, Esther’s insecurity; shy around the mothering Mrs. Dickson (Lynne Hastings), the owner of the boarding house; and demure around Mrs. Van Buren (Katie McGehee), one of her wealthy white clients. And yet when Esther meets with her friend and client Mayme (Betty Hart), a prostitute, the two joke in a way that reveals another side of Esther, someone with big aspirations and an oft-contained sense of humor. The play’s conflict arises not from an obvious antagonist, but from another aspect of Esther’s multifaceted personality: her naiveté, expressed through correspondence with the romantic and enigmatic George Armstrong (John Eric Parker).
Each actor integrated the challenges presented by their character (George’s ulterior motives, Mayme’s longing for love) into complex performances, sometimes suggesting a character’s true feelings with eyes alone. While I can’t recommend the front row for visibility’s sake, do try to sit close. The devil is in the details.
Special mention should be given to the chemistry between Esther and Mr. Marks (Michael Lee). In the role of Marks, a Jewish fabric salesman, Lee is charmingly awkward, alternately subtle and obvious in his regard for Esther — a strong performance by this veteran of the local stage.
Audiences interested in a historical drama that doesn’t overdo either the history or the drama will adore Intimate Apparel. We need nothing in common with these complex individuals — age, race, religion, or even an era of history — in order to find them relatable. The joy (and the pain) of Intimate Apparel is in the inherent humanity of its characters, and the actors who bring them to life.