Susan Granger’s review of “Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse (2014-2015)
By Susan Granger
The Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last. The final play of the season is Lynn Nottage’s vibrant, sensitive story about her great-grandmother, a black seamstress who lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1905. That’s back when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote.
At 35 years-old, Esther (Nikki E. Walker) is considered a plain, middle-aged spinster. For the past 15 years, she’s diligently created lovely, fashionable lingerie on a sewing machine in her room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who keeps urging her to come down to the parlor to meet ‘eligible’ men. But Esther has a dream: she wants to save enough money to open a ‘beauty parlor’ for black women. One day, Esther’s humdrum life is turned upside when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Isiah Johnson), a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados. A co-worker told him about Esther, and he begs to correspond with her. Problem is: Esther can neither read nor write. So she turns to a sympathetic client, Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a boozing, bourgeois socialite on Fifth Avenue, to compose an answer. As the letter-writing becomes feverish, Esther also enlists the help of her friend Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), a black prostitute. Meanwhile, Esther develops a courteously friendly relationship with gentle Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman in the Garment District.
They’re obviously attracted to one another but race and religion keep them in separate worlds; all they can do together is marvel over fine fabrics. When opportunistic George eventually arrives in the United States and marries virginal Esther, her problems become even more complicated and heartbreak looms.
With deft artistry Lynn Nottage, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and whose play Ruined won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and director Mary B. Robinson create an acute awareness of the dismissive anonymity of African-Americans during that era. Eschewing sentimentality, they also draw a timely parallel with the perils of contemporary, on-line dating. While the acting ensemble is superb, much credit must also go to Michael Krass, whose choice of costumes speaks as eloquently as the dialogue.
“Intimate Apparel” runs through Nov. 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.