note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Richard Pacheco
The play had its world premiere at Center Stage on February 2, 2003. Directed by Kate Whoriskey, the cast featured Shane Williams (Esther), Brenda Pressley (Mrs. Dickson), Kevin Jackson (George Armstrong) and Sue Cremin (Mrs. VanBuren). It next ran at the South Coast Repertory from April 11, 2003 through May 18, 2003 directed by Whoriskey and with the same Center Stage cast.
The play made its New York debut off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre, running from March 17, 2004 to June 6, 2004. Directed by Daniel J. Sullivan, it featured Viola Davis (Esther), Lynda Gravatt (Mrs. Dickson), and Corey Stoll (Mr. Marks).
The play won the 2004 Steinberg New Play Award, presented by The American Theatre Critics Association to "outstanding new plays produced around the United States, outside of New York City”. Nottage, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, based the exquisitely written “Intimate Apparel” on her own family's history – in particular her great-grandmother's experiences as a seamstress in New York at the end of the 19th century- It is her brilliant attention to characterization and narrative that makes this pal shine and gives its wonderful actors so much to work with.
The story centers on Esther Mills (Mia Ellis), an African-American woman living in New York City at the turn of the 19th century where she works as a highly skilled seamstress of the kinds of garments of the title for a wide range of clients, the wealthy to saloon singers. Esther might have dreams of marriage, but she is down to earth and a practical woman and does not believe in fairy tales.
She is thirty five and knows that avenue in her life is limited at best so she strives to save her money for her dream to own an elegant beauty parlor for black women. She has a single mindedness that is impressive, but gets distracted with a warm and friendly correspondence, long distance with a laborer in Panama working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong. As the warmth and attraction grows so do the possible side effects of it.
Ellis is wonderful in the role, full of sensitivity and nuance, delivering a vivid and vivacious performance. This is her first year as a resident actress at Trinity and this performance establishes her talent and abilities beyond doubt. She deftly captures the mixture of insecurities in that Esther cannot read and write, giving it a richness and sincerity that is compelling. It is a rich and stunning performance on many levels.
Joe Wilson Jr. is equally stunning as her “Panama Man” delivering a varied and sensitive performance, full of nuance. Throughout the first act, he shows up through the letters they write to each other and comes into the scene in the second act, becoming more that a voice at the end of the letters. When the long awaited George steps into her life for real, some things are different than she expected. All that is revealed in their body language when they first meet revealing, a difference between the gentleman of the letters and the flesh and blood man at her side.
The other characters in this brilliant ensemble shine as well. Nottage described Intimate Apparel as "a meditation on loneliness," and each of the play’s characters underscores that vividly and distinctly. It ends up a rich and varied interplay between their interactions with Esther, depending on their race, social status and their expectations built on those criteria.
Angela Brazil plays Mrs. Van Buren, Esther's wealthy, high-profile client. She considers Esther more than mere seamstress, but more confidant and friend, something unique for a Fifth Avenue socialite and upper crust of New York Society. Brazil is sheer delight in the role, garnering many laughs along the way with her antics and actions as well as her words.
Another character who develops a deepening attachment to Esther is Mr. Marks (Mauro Hantman) a Romanian-born Jewish man. Marks is a soft spoken, eminently polite and well mannered fabrics seller. He is sweet, humble and respectful in all his dealings with Esther. They have an easy rapport and warm companionship within a business context and it is obvious their rapport is not merely professional. They are vey attached to each other even though it is unspoken. Hantman delivers a skillful performance as Marks, full of bittersweet poignancy and sincerity.
Barbara Meek, always wonderful and delightful, opens the show as Mrs. Dickson, Esther's motherly-if-meddling landlady. She has some of the funniest lines in the show and always is on the mark with flair and finesse.
Shelley Fort, a second-year student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting program and keeps up with the fine company she keeps in this play as the brassy and brazen fallen woman, Mayme. Mayme has tons of unfulfilled and never will be fulfilled dreams and hopes. She has deep hurt and quick witted humor and fast tongue. There is a scene in the second act between her and Ellis that is emotionally powerful and intense where they both shine with extraordinary proficiency and emotional depth.
“Intimate Apparel” is directed by TRC's own Janice Duclos who handles her superb cast with depth and fine distinction throughout.
Patrick Lynch designed an elegant multiple set piece for the play which creates several small, intimate spaces with distinct touches. From the rich array of fabrics for Mark’s shop to the boudoir of Mrs. Van Buren and the period piece furniture, all come vividly to life and create and handsome and effective atmosphere.
Photo projections on the high walls also offer the audience the sights and sounds of New York City, 1905. John Ambrosone's lighting design establishes a dreamy, romantic tone for Esther and George's first innocent flirtations through the mail correspondence.
It plays Trinity Repertory Company's downstairs Dowling Theater through March 2, 2014. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $28-$68