Lynn Nottage’s lyrical play Intimate Apparel, first produced in 2003, has more in common with undergarments than just its title. There’s raw, naked truth waiting beneath the layers of Nottage’s brilliantly woven, sensitively designed drama, and as the various layers peel away—each section of the story named for a different type of fabric or item of clothing—a sense of anticipation builds.
From the play’s very first moments, Nottage hints at things to come. Slyly and surely, with her elegant, superbly poetic voice, the playwright promises that by the end of the play we will finally see her characters for who they really are—and in the case of lonely, shy African-American seamstress Esther, that she will perhaps finally see herself for who she is, as well.
Intimate Apparel (which had its North Bay premiere last fall at Marin’s AlterTheatre Ensemble) finally comes to Sonoma County in a luxurious if wildly uneven production in the Studio at Sixth Street Playhouse, where the play runs through Feb. 27. Directed by Bronwen Shears with an appealing eye for visual detail, the production works in spite of some unconvincing, superficial performances. That’s in part because the power of Nottage’s text is nearly impossible to dampen, but also because the direction and pacing are as fluid as the words. When the performances do work, they work wonderfully.
Set in 1905, the play takes place in a series of bedrooms and storefront parlors, each indicated by an atmospheric piece of furniture or two placed around the Studio’s compact performance space, allowing the action to flow from scene to scene without interruption.
Esther (Naomi Sample), 35 years old and uneasily illiterate, makes her living sewing elaborate undergarments for a cross-section of New York women. These include Mrs. Van Buren (Erin Hoffman), a white society woman with an unhappy marriage and a growing dependency on alcohol, and Mayme (Rebecca Frank), the musician turned prostitute whose sexual adventures are appalling to Esther, even as they hint at a kind of intimacy she long ago gave up hope of experiencing.
Unmarried and convinced of her own unattractiveness, Esther lives at the boardinghouse of the big-hearted busybody Mrs. Dickson (Marjorie Crump-Shears). Her only male acquaintance is Mr. Marks (Jeff Cote), the sweet and bashful Orthodox Jewish merchant from whom she buys her fabric, and who clearly shares Esther’s unspoken, entirely forbidden affection.
Things change for Esther when she begins a long-distance correspondence with George Armstrong (Cameron Stuckey), a laborer working to build the Panama Canal. Unable to read or write, Esther timidly accepts the help of Mayme and Mrs. Dickson in writing to George, gradually falling in love with the unseen pen pal through the beauty of his writing. When, in a letter, he declares his love and offers to come to New York and marry her, Esther’s decision threatens to tear a hole in her fragile existence, even as it promises the kind of life she’s always dreamed of.
‘Intimate Apparel’ runs Friday-Sunday through Feb. 27, with one Thursday night show on Feb. 24, at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Friday-Saturday and Feb. 24 at 8pm; 2pm matinees, Sundays and Feb. 26. 56 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $10-$25. 707.523.4185.