“Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse
By Tom Nissley
A perfectly charming production of an early twentieth century mystery unfolds on Westport’s stage to wrap up the 2014 season. Directed by Mary B. Robinson, it tells the story of a hard-working black seamstress named Esther (Nikki E. Walker) who lives in a rooming house owned by a friend, Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell). Esther buys elegant fabric from an Orthodox Jewish merchant, also a friend, named Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider) 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 (Heather Alicia Simms) who 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 (Leighton Bryan), 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 (Isaiah Johnson), 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.
The set, by Allan Moyer, lighted by Eric Southern, is a careful compilation of bedrooms and shops that allow the story to move forward one stop at a time. Sound design and some original music by Fitz Patton is terrific, and the costume design, by Michael Krass, is fabulous. The actors are so well attuned and the work is so nicely directed that is would be tempting to offer them an award for ensemble work. I was especially moved by Nikki E. Walker’s Esther and Tommy Schrider’s Mr. Marks, and impressed by Simms and Johnson and Mitchell and Bryan, too, so there’s the whole company, a patchwork quilt of persons who make this production very high grade.
For tickets and Information go to www.westportplayhouse.org, or call 203-227-4177.
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
October 15, 2014