Lynn Nottage is an African American playwright to be reckoned with. In 1903, she won the John Gassner Award for Best New American play from the Outer Critics Circle for Intimate Apparel, which starred Viola Davis; she subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her powerfully devastating work, Ruined.
Now through November 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse, you may see Intimate Apparel in a production that is as silky as the shimmery fabrics that shine throughout the plot. Directed well but at slow pace by Mary B. Robinson, this tells a story set in lower Manhattan at the turn of the 20th Century, when people of many backgrounds were streaming into NY City, bringing their many talents.
On a split stage set designed by Allen Moyer and lit evocatively by Eric Southern, we meet the cast, costumed with care by Michael Krass. Esther, a plain, thirty five years old African American woman is a fine, hard-working seamstress, who spends most of her time at her sewing machine; she has lived for 17 years in a boarding house for women. The superb Nikki E.Walker captures the loneliness, the pride and the independence of Esther, who sees others getting married, while she is saving every nickel to open a beauty salon.
Esther's know-it-all landlady, Mrs. Dickson, spirited Aleta Mitchell, tries to fix her up with a stout, much older rich man, but Esther will not have him, and is saved when she receives a letter out of the blue from George. Isaiah Johnson is handsome and convincing in the role, but at times it is difficult, because of his accent, to understand what he is saying. It seems he is working, building the Panama Canal, living in terrible circumstances; he writes to Esther and she answers. Although she can't read or write, two of her clients at opposite ends of the spectrum help her out. Played by pretty Leighton Bryan, Mrs. Van Buren, an unhappily married socialite, and Mayme, a prostitute, depicted with verve by Heather Alicia Simms, write the letters, which eventually lead to marriage. Mayme plays the piano and the original music composed by Fitz Patton was exceptional. At first, we are hopeful that the marriage be successful, but in a short time, it is obvious George just wants her money.
At the same time Esther's life is impacted by also unmarried Mr. Marks, who sells her the beautiful fabrics she uses for her clients. Tommy Schrider is masterful as this Orthodox Romanian Jew. Their relationship is suffused with loving warmth and the shared appreciation of the same things. Her journeys to his shop on Orchard street are an escape from the cruelty she is experiencing at home. But, of course, their pairing would be impossible. The outcome is fairly predictable, but left a hard question: When Esther discovered that George was cheating on her with Mayme, why did she give him all her money? Surely her revenge could have been more interesting.
Intimate Apparel explores very important issues now through Nov 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.