What wonderful serendipity in Baltimore this October. On one side of Fayette Street, the Hippodrome Theatre recently hosted the musical The Color Purple with heroine Miss Celie realizing her dreams and worth, after a life hard-used and abused by her husband, in her creation of comfortable, practical pants for women.
On the other side, Everyman Theatre presents another pair of gifted hands, these belonging to Esther (a deeply grounded Dawn Ursula, who has the role sewn up as flawlessly as a couture gown), a black seamstress in 1905 Manhattan who crafts exquisite corsets and lingerie for Fifth Avenue socialites and the occasional prostitute in the transcendent production of Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage’s play that coincidentally was co-commissioned by Baltimore’s Center Stage for its world premiere in 2003.
Like Miss Celie, Esther’s features are as neat and plain as her needlework is flawless. Years of endless work and a largely loveless life has eroded their sense of self—although Esther is externally confident and definite, inside she’s desperately lonely, self-pitying and possessed of a slow-burning anger for not having what she thinks will complete her—a husband.
But at 35 and what her garrulous landlady Mrs. Dickson (grandly played by Jenn Walker) calls “particular,” the pickings are slim as a sewing needle. What a stroke of luck when Esther begins receiving letters from George (Bueka Uwemedimo, giving unexpected empathy and depth to the bad guy role, playing George as a proud, simple man completely out of his element in New York), a Caribbean laborer working on the Panama Canal.
The letters are swoony, a torrent of fine language—or so Esther hears, since she cannot read and relies on her client, the peaches-and-cream Mrs. Van Buren (Beth Hylton), a Southern belle transplanted to New York and anxious to give her rich husband a child, and her friend, prostitute Mayme (Jade Wheeler), to read the missives to her.
George turns out to be an ordinary guy, albeit a handsome one with a singsong lilt to his voice. He’s crude and pawing on their wedding night—as Esther stands before him wearing an intricately embroidered and lace-embellished gown she made herself—and proves more demanding and disappointing as their marriage lurches on.
Sadly ironic that Esther specializes in the art of seduction, whether it is crafting corsets to seize the interest of Mrs. Van Buren’s husband or sewing up naughty getups to entice Mayme’s customers. That someone as buttoned up as Esther works with lace, whalebone, satin and silk – materials that plump the bosom, whittle the waist and accentuate the derriere, in short, shape a woman’s body in ways that are pleasing to a man.
Esther’s sensual side is expressed in her love of fabric: The drape of silk is like a caress to her, and she runs lace through her hands as if it is a lover’s hair. In scenes of burnished, tacit sexual tension, Esther shares her passion with Mr. Marks (a tender Drew Kopas) a Jewish cloth merchant. Two people that hot for each other should probably not be standing together in a store full of flammable fabric.
Costume designer David Burdick further reinforces the tingle that textiles can elicit. His clothes are impeccably tailored and molded to the individual body to the point where you have to slap your hands to resist walking up onstage to stroke a Scottish wool suit or a swishy magenta skirt as luscious as ripe fruit. The Japanese silk smoking jacket she makes for her husband’s wedding night brings tears to your eyes it is so beautiful.
closes November 19, 2017
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Yet this play is about more than intimate apparel; it is about intimate thoughts. The attention-starved Mrs. Van Buren—played with fragile frenzy by Hylton– tells things to Esther in her boudoir that she would never tell another soul. In Esther’s presence, too, Mayme (Wheeler is both jaded and exposed) is more giddy schoolgirl than sex object. There is an incredible intimacy to Esther’s work: These are the garments her customers wear closest to their bodies, next to their bare skin.
That someone as accomplished as Esther would pin all her fantasies on a man she hardly knows seems foolish but all too familiar.
Watching the play many years after its premiere in Baltimore, recalled the character of Floyd Barton in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. In the play, every revolution of a blues record added up to a counting of Floyd’s worth as a man. So too with Esther in Nottage’s play. Every stroke of the sewing machine pedal seems to say:
I count. I am. I count. I am. I count. I am.
until Esther produces a finished garment, each stitch a testament to her value, artistry and work ethic.
Because for women like Esther—and many women—our worth is seen in what we do in the home. The fineness of a stitch, the crust of our pies, the snap of an ironed sheet. And like Esther, when disappointed in love, all we want is to be put back where we were before.
For Esther, that’s in front of her trusty sewing machine, surrounded by the people whose lives she has touched, secure in knowing her power.
Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage . Director: Tazewell Thompson. Featuring: Dawn Ursula, Jenn Walker, Beth Hylton, Drew Kopas, Jade Wheeler, Bueka Uwemedimo. Set Design: Donald Eastman. Lighting Design: Stephen Quandt. Costume Design: David Burdick. Sound Design & Composition: Fabian Obispo. Dialects: Gary Logan. Wig Design: Denise O’Brien. Piano Consultant: Ernest Liotti. Props Madter: Jillian Mathews. Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.