By David A. Rosenberg
Even Allen Moyer’s fluid set design proclaims separation, loneliness and yearning in Westport Country Playhouse’s fine revival of Lynn Nottage’s absorbing “Intimate Apparel.” Taking place in four different locations -- a fabric shop, rooming house, brothel and upper-class dwelling, all with beds -- the 2003 work portrays its inhabitants as trapped prisoners of their pasts.
Only Esther, our heroine, traverses each location. The other characters never seem to leave their rooms. But Esther is as much at home in her own meager dwelling as she is in the bedroom of the rich white woman who buys the exquisite corsets and nightgowns that Esther, a genius with a sewing machine, makes (courtesy of costume designer Michael Krass).
As befitting her station, the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren’s bedroom looms above, dominating the other locations. At the lower end of the scale, Esther also befriends and sells apparel to Mayme, a prostitute who plays a mean ragtime piano and doesn’t much enjoy her clients. Balancing Mayme’s room is the equally cramped workshop/bedroom of Mr. Marks, the honest, kind Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant.
Through these settings, Nottage takes us back to 1905 for her generous and moving tale of an African-American seamstress, a trusting, plain, open-hearted 35-year-old taken advantage of by George Armstrong, the flattering, greedy rake who bilks her of not only her money but her love. Esther can’t say she hasn’t been warned by her worldly landlady, Mrs. Dickson, who tells her, “Don’t let a man have no part of your heart without getting a piece of his.”
Although surrounded by whiffs of melodrama and untenable contrivances, characters are so particularized that the audience is caught up in their personal stories. Set against a background of New York City anonymity, it’s a play of opposing forces of individuals, society, class and tradition. Not only is it Mrs. Van Buren vs. Mayme, but Mr. Marks, whose affection for Esther is stymied by race and religion, vs. the slick, scheming Armstrong.
Director Mary B. Robinson pays attention to the play’s moods, slighting neither its realism nor its poetry. Nikki E. Walker shines as Esther, avoiding self-pity and emphasizing a will to survive. As singular are Leighton Bryan as Mrs. Van Buren, Aleta Mitchell as Mrs. Dickson, Heather Alicia Simms as Mayme and Tommy Schrider as Mr. Marks. As George, Isaiah Johnson has the right swagger but his Barbados accent is so thick that much of what he says is lost.
Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her subsequent “Ruined,” is working on turning “Intimate Apparel” into an opera. With luck it will be as rich as its multi-layered predecessor.