A perfect piece of apparel is nothing without the reliable threads that bind it together. The same idea works in theater; a good play is nothing without a strong set of actors.
The threads of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel lie within actors in the Chautauqua Theater Company conservatory, who will take the Bratton Theater stage 4 p.m. Saturday with the play’s opening show. The play previews at 8 p.m. Friday.
Intimate Apparel is a story about the complicated relationships between Esther, a lonely seamstress, and the various people around her, including her husband, George Armstrong; her customer and friend, Mrs. Van Buren; and her fabric seller, Mr. Marks.
“Mrs. Van Buren is a wealthy Manhattan resident who is married to an emotionally and verbally abusive husband you never see. She is in a loveless marriage,” said Kate Eastman, who plays Mrs. Van Buren.
Eastman is a returning conservatory actor. She was last seen in Molly Smith Metzler’s The May Queen, in 2014. Her character meets Esther to order corsets, the fashion staple of that time, so she can make her marriage work. A friendly relationship blossoms.
“Esther becomes her confidant and the only person she can talk to,” Eastman said.
When Eastman first met Mrs. Van Buren on the pages of the script, she sympathized.
“I loved Mrs. Van Buren a little bit too much,” Eastman said. “Like all the characters in this play, she wants to be seen and to be loved, but the fact of her race and her class make it impossible for her to be on an equal level with Esther. I think a true friendship can’t exist unless you are an equal. Nothing is easy in this play.”
CTC conservatory actor Kyle Vincent Terry plays George Armstrong, an immigrant working on a Panama Canal. George’s epistolary relationship with Esther changes when he moves to New York to marry her.
“I was most drawn to George because he was a character without a connection,” Terry said. “He is an outsider everywhere.”
Another immigrant in the play is Mr. Marks, played by conservatory actor Matthew Baldiga. Mr. Marks is an orthodox Jewish-Romanian immigrant who runs a fabric shop out of his bedroom and sells fabric to Esther. Esther and Mr. Marks’ relationship is purely based on the textures of cloth.
“His immigrant experience and his love for fabrics is what fascinated me,” Baldiga said. “Mr. Marks finds a common language with Esther through the fabric. When you realize you have a common vocabulary with a person who enjoys the same vocabulary, you can form connections that may not have existed with others.”
Through the course of the rehearsal of the play, Baldiga has constantly found himself with questions about the real fabrics of that time.
“I knew very little about fabric, but the language of the play is so beautiful that I knew more just by reading the play,” he said. “Fabric is images, and each fabric stands for something.”
Intimate Apparel stands for invisible women who are trying to tell their stories and asses their self-worth, often on the pretext of being loved or married.
“My favorite scene in the play is between Mrs. Dickson and Esther right before Esther’s marriage, where Mrs. Dickson gives her some advice that every woman should hear,” Eastman said. “The one thing she says that has stuck with me is, ‘Don’t give a man a piece of your heart without getting a piece of his.’ ”
With their second stage production beginning in two days — and a third in process — the conservatory actors are constantly juggling rehearsals and classes.
“It’s like grad school,” Eastman said. “We are already used to 14-hour days.”
CTC has almost reached the midpoint of its season. The conservatory is soon to be alumni of the program.
“I don’t have any aspirations or goals [elsewhere]. This is the bottom line, and this is the kind of work I want to do,” Baldiga said. “I was hungry for caliber and learning, and CTC is an environment that fosters academic and artistic growth. I am glad I took that big leap of faith.”