A sad kind of love story unfolds at this production of “Intimate Apparel” on the Playhouse on Park Stage. The very creative set, designed and lit by Marcus Abbott, allows fluid movement to four stations that each house lonely persons with distinct backgrounds. Joel Abbott’s sound design and Kate Bunce’ exquisite costumes are a delight.
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, the play tells the story of a hard-working black seamstress named Esther (Darlene Hope) who lives in a rooming house owned by a friend, Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray). Esther buys elegant fabric from an Orthodox Jewish merchant, also a friend, named Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin) and is a specialist at tailoring fashionable corsets and underwear for ladies. Intimate Apparel.
We get to know two of her clients: one is Mayme (Zuri Escun) who regularly entertains a number of gentleman callers for, um, profit. Mayme is light hearted and not very encumbered by boundary issues.
The second is a wealthy white woman in a boring marriage, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who tells Esther about going to plays and the opera, reinforcing the distance between them on a social level.
Esther is not a girl. She would like to know what it might be like to be in love but has never had the opportunity. She thinks of herself as plain and is simple in her style. She’s active in her church. And she carefully saves her money, sewing it into the quilt on her bed, saving it for an imagined day when she might open a beauty parlor. She is intrigued when Mr. Marks tells her that he is betrothed to a distant woman he has never met. There is a spark between them. He is likely to purchase a portion of a fine pattern with Esther in mind. They can share the feel of the fabric, but he cannot touch or be touched by a woman not his wife.
One day, out of the blue, Mrs. Dickson hands Esther a letter that has arrived for her from a man named George (Beethoven Oden), who is working on the Panama Canal. Mrs. Dickson reads her the letter (Esther, a meticulous seamstress, cannot read or write sentences herself). George has heard her name and writes to say hello. Esther confides the letter to Mrs. Van Buren, who offers to write back to George on Esther’s behalf. And so, a correspondence begins.
Months, and many letters later, George proposes, and Esther accepts. He arrives from Panama. Esther has gotten some fine woolen fabric to make him a suit, and she has made lovely underwear and a wedding dress for herself. The rest of the story works itself out with some tragic turns, which I won’t give away here, but promise you’ll be touched.
Ms. Hope is a remarkable actress whose versatile face changes to reflect every emotion, sometimes moment by moment. And Lynn Nottage has created an intriguing script which deftly exposes the interesting depths of her personal relationship with each of the friends who are all still separate from her. Mayme by a vast life-style difference; Mrs. Van Buren, who allows her entrance to her home only by a side entrance and would not, of course, take her to the Opera, while going on about it, but who trusts Esther as her only real understanding, listening, companion. Or Mr. Marks, who also genuinely feels a connection with her, misses her when they don’t see each other, purchases and saves special fabrics for her, but because of his religion and hers, cannot even shake hands with her. And then George, who demonstrates his own separation even within their marriage.
Persons complained about not hearing some of the dialogue on opening night, and it is possible that Ms. Navarro erred in not insisting that all of her actors project more forcefully from every corner of the stage. Nevertheless, this is a production that you should not miss.
Tickets or information at www.PlayhouseonPark.org, or by phone at 860-523-5900 x10
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Feb. 17, 2018