Guest Review by: Rebecca J. Ritzel
For every new play written about an Esther Mills, it seems there are a dozen more about Mary Todd Lincoln’s black seamstress, Martin Luther King Jr.’s black hotel maid and Woodrow Wilson’s black stenographer. It is simply easier for playwrights to get a commission when they choose to focus on African-American characters who are connected to known historical figures.
Some of these plays — such as Katori Hall’s MLK tragi-comedy The Mountaintop — have been successful. Many others attract curious local audiences and school field trip buses but see few additional productions, because the history lesson took precedent over the story. The beauty of Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage’s 2003 Steinberg Best New Play Award winner, is that she was free to craft her own historical fiction. Twelve years later, the play remains popular because it is such a quality drama, and because too few other scripts have achieved the same stature. Chautauqua Theater Company’s excellent first production of the play opened Saturday at Bratton Theater.
Tangela Large, a 2013 CTC conservatory student, has returned to star as Esther, a 35-year-old seamstress who, from her boarding house room in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, sews silk corsets and organza dressing gowns for Manhattan’s white upper classes. At play’s opening, her acting is almost too oblique, but her performance is one that becomes more revelatory as her character blossoms from a “plain-faced girl” to a bride in love to a woman who finally comprehends her own strength.
The play’s action is set in four bedrooms and one fabric shop, each depicted on the Bratton stage by a series of curtains (scenic design is by Alexis Distler). Beds roll on and off stage at a languid pace, and sympathetic audiences will understand that on a slightly bigger stage and budget, productions of Intimate Apparel can segue between scenes with more ease. Director Vivienne Benesch does her best, however, and the five well-cast supporting actors surround Esther to spout differing variations on a theme: To be in love is a many splendored thing, but to be married, too often, is not.
The play opens with Esther reluctantly sewing for yet another bridal trousseau, but skipping out on the engagement party. Then she receives a letter from a Caribbean laborer digging his way through the Panamanian isthmus. He’s met the son of a deacon from her former church, and asks to correspond. He wants “to have someone to think about, someone not covered from head to toe in mud, someone to ward off this awful boredom.”
Shakespeare he’s not. What woman who views herself as hopelessly single wouldn’t swoon?
The letters are read aloud by Kyle Vincent Terry, standing in a stage right spotlight, usually with a hat in hand. To reply, the illiterate Esther seeks help from her unhappily wed client Mrs. Van Buren (a sultry and appropriately insecure Kate Eastman) or her friend of ill-repute named Mayme (a sultry songstress and scene-stealing Whitney White). They pen descriptions of what a fine magenta corset feels like when stroked against bare skin — he imagines the silk thread slipping softly between her fingers.
When her suitor arrives in New York, however, reality replaces pen-and-ink fabric foreplay. As George, Terry is always convincing with his tense, shiftless body language, but speaks with an oddly Irish accent, an increasingly distracting quirk. Thankfully, Matthew Baldiga fares better in his role as Mr. Marks, the Romanian immigrant who offers Esther Valencian lace, Scottish wool and charmingly awkward cups of tea.
All of these characters — including Kathryn Hunter Williams as Esther’s busybody landlady — stitch together an American melting pot in miniature. More importantly, the actors, Nottage and Chautauqua’s creative team do this without relying on the crutch of characters who audiences can go home and read about on Wikipedia. The play ends as it begins — with Esther seated at an antique Singer, feet steadily pumping the treadle. A projection beamed above the stage reads, “an unidentified Negro seamstress.” Unknown to history, and yet so easy for present-day audiences to identify with.
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance arts journalist who serves as a critic for (Washington) City Paper and theater columnist for The Washington Post. She holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University and teaches writing at the University of Maryland.