An Everywoman's Tale

At the center of Lynn Nottage's gentle, appealing play, Intimate Apparel, is the figure of Esther, a black woman in her thirties living in a boardinghouse in 1905 New York City, and -- like so many poor and displaced women before and since -- making her living as a seamstress. She specializes in beautiful undergarments.

Esther's landlady, Mrs. Dickson, is sensible and warmhearted but interfering. She herself married for practical reasons: Her husband was the owner of the boarding house, which he left to her on his death. She wants Esther to make a similar marriage, but Esther is more idealistic. There are two other women in Esther's life, both customers. One is Mrs. Van Buren, a white woman married to a rich, neglectful husband, the other a prostitute, Mayme. The lives of these four women represent almost the entire spectrum of possibility for women of that era.

There's also Mr. Marks, a religious Jew from whom Esther buys her fabrics. He has a poetic soul, and he speaks to the artist in her, sharing her love of texture and color and weaving for her the stories behind his bolts of cloth. The current between them is strong, but their backgrounds and cultures are vastly different. Mr. Marks is engaged to a woman from Eastern Europe whom he has never met.

Unexpectedly, Esther receives a letter. Unable to read, she carries it to Mrs. Van Buren. The letter is from George Armstrong, a Barbadian laborer. From the depths of her own lonely heart, Mrs. Van Buren helps Esther devise an answer, and the letters keep coming until Mayme, too, is drawn into the conspiracy, adding a dash of verve and open sexuality to the correspondence. George appears to be dazzled. The language of his own letters begins to heighten and the phrases to sing. He proposes to Esther and eventually travels to New York to marry her. But just as Esther is not the woman George has come to know from the letters, he is not the man she expected him to be. The second act of Intimate Apparel is more bitter than the first, as Esther realizes that loneliness, need and fantasy have shaped not only her feelings for George, but, to some extent, her relationships with Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren.

Nottage is juggling several themes, and her story -- like most good stories -- concerns both the intimately personal and the socio-political. Esther, played by Debbie Johnson Lee with dignity, feeling, restraint and the occasional brightly unexpected glint of humor, is a complex and sympathetic character who eventually discovers her own strength. But she also represents the thousands of young women -- poor women, immigrants, women of color -- who to this day flock to America's cities looking for a way to survive. There's something particularly touching in the way Esther interacts with the other characters: her respect for both her clients -- the whore and the high-society woman; her willingness to believe the best of laborer George; her attempts to understand Mr. Marks; and her dawning realization that Mrs. Dickson may be wiser than she seems. As the differing worldviews collude and collide, the play invites us to contemplate the gap between illusion and reality and the way that society's labels mask and distort the richness of individual experience.

Joseph J. Egan has designed an ingenious set, and director Jane Page has cast her production well. In addition to Lee's beautiful depiction of Esther, there are strong performances from Josephine Hall as Mrs. Van Buren and Wendelin Harston as Mrs. Dickson. Natalie Oliver-Atherton's tough, elegant and theatrical Mayme has a way of plunking herself down on the piano stool -- legs apart, negligee floating behind her, hands splaying wide as they descend onto the keys -- that somehow sums up her entire character. The men are not quite as strong, and I found both Kennedy Reilly-Pugh's Caribbean intonations as George and Neil Necastro's Eastern European accent as Mr. Marks distracting. Nonetheless, both actors served the play well.

The script has flaws. Some of the action strains credulity. Esther is a little too good throughout, and George, once his mask slips, a little too bad. But there are also wonderfully evocative scenes and many moments of insight.