The setting is lower Manhattan in 1905, and the wide stage at Dorset Playhouse abounds in details: a gas lamp hanging from the ceiling, a white porcelain wash basin and pitcher, patterned wallpaper. The action in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel (2003) takes place in five bedrooms, cleverly realized in this production by overlapping the physical space and shaping each room with changes in lighting and small adjustments of furnishings. Those stylized transitions give the play a dreamlike quality, while the realistic scenes have a strict authenticity.
The six characters share links and parallels that stand out when seen in the play's wide-angle view of urban African American and immigrant laborers. They are also sharply delineated individuals, portrayed with powerful depth by this cast.
Nottage's first act is a pencil sketch of dreams, delicately drawn. All the characters have hopes, yet they face such large obstacles that they dare not hope too hard. In the more emotional second act, the playwright uses bold brushstrokes to paint the characters fighting for their dreams in a harsh world where race, gender and ethnicity limit their choices.
Their dreams are simple. Esther sews intimate apparel in her boarding-house room in lower Manhattan. She saves every penny, hoping to open a beauty salon for black women one day. Her friend Mayme is a prostitute who composes music and dreams of playing piano professionally. Mrs. Van Buren, a white Fifth Avenue socialite, wants a baby, but she and her husband are strangers in the bedroom; commissioning sexy undergarments from Esther is a last resort.
George left Barbados to join a crew building the Panama Canal but now wants less dangerous work and a wife, so he starts an epistolary courtship with Esther that eventually brings him to New York. Mrs. Dickson, Esther's landlady, fancies herself a matchmaker, but she alternately boasts about and regrets her own choice of husband. The cloth merchant Mr. Marks is an observant Romanian Jew who has no interest in the fiancée his parents have arranged for him, but he cannot reconcile his religion with the hope of a more fulfilling love.
Nottage anchors the play on Esther and the clothing she sews. The garments supply a rich context for revealing character. Esther works alone and, at age 35, has given up hopes of romance, yet she makes the intimate garments intended to spark it. Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren are usually seen in their corsets and garters, but both imagine lives outside the bedroom. The fine fabrics that Mr. Marks sells and Esther admires become things they can caress together, the closest the two can come across a racial and religious divide that forbids even a touch of the hand. Their mutual attraction remains unspoken.
The performances are understated, steered by director Giovanna Sardelli to allow the poetry of Nottage's plainspoken style to emerge. George reflects on the "wonder and waste" of digging the Panama Canal. After hearing Mrs. Van Buren speculate on the erotic attractions of the Tenderloin district and Mayme long for the high life, Esther tells Mayme, "What she got, you want; what you got, she want." In taking time to let each line resonate, the director and actors reveal the deepest levels of the play, including its humor.
The stories in Intimate Apparel are uncomplicated, but the performers plumb emotional depths by creating a sense that there's no turning back from crucial choices.
After years of saving for her beauty shop, Esther finds herself dreaming that a man she's never met could end her loneliness. But when George finally comes into her life, it's not the happy ending she imagined. Forced to choose between her two dreams, she finds the need for love deeper but far more dangerous. In this production, watershed choices are made without histrionics and expressed in unadorned language and action.
Marinda Anderson, as Esther, perfectly conveys her character's affecting blend of humility and nobility. She never stoops to sentimentality. Esther's woes are real, but Anderson portrays the dignity with which she bears them. It's up to the audience to feel compassion, because this performance doesn't manipulate; it reveals.
Chantal Jean-Pierre gives Mayme a bubbling laugh that seems to be her character's method of coping with disappointment: She lifts herself up with it. Her cheer and energy are delightful, but when Mayme faces an ache too deep for that laugh to conquer, her agony is harrowing. Janie Brookshire, as Mrs. Van Buren, portrays her character as flitting erratically between distance and closeness with Esther. When Esther helps fit her corset, Brookshire subtly expresses the socialite's mixture of pleasure and unease when touched so intimately.
Avery Glymph endows George with such charm that it's easy to overlook his character's darker qualities. Glymph uses his long, lean physicality to show George as both a hard worker and an elegant layabout, too proud to labor forever. As Mr. Marks, Charles Socarides builds his character with delicate physical gestures, handling beautiful fabric with a connoisseur's touch. In his final exchange with Esther, he lets his yearning eyes grow wide to show what his hands cannot.
The costumes by Sydney Maresca bring to life the script's skillful use of clothing as outward and inward manifestations of self. The components of Esther's wardrobe precisely suit each moment, from the drab clothes of a hardworking seamstress to a wedding gown with victorious puffed sleeves to a lower-class married woman's simple finery. The corsets and camisoles have impressive beadwork and flourishes. The fabrics Esther selects from Mr. Marks' shelf return as a man's suit, a magenta corset and a silk smoking jacket, all exquisitely realized by Maresca.
Michael Giannitti's lighting and Andrew Boyce's set serve the play's arresting blend of artifice and realism. The space is replete with tangible objects, from a functioning sewing machine to a brass bed, yet one room can change into another in subtle transitions.
Though the characters make up an album of social types, they share a common need. It's fabric we watch them touch; it's human intimacy each of them aches to feel.
The original print version of this article was headlined "What Lies Beneath"