Now playing at Sierra Repertory’s East Sonora Theater is Lynn Nottage’s beautiful play, “Intimate Apparel.” Nottage has won two Pulitzer Prizes and is acclaimed for her depictions of marginalized persons, whose voices have traditionally been lost. This play, inspired by her great-grandmother’s story, distinctly resonates with its universal themes of loneliness, love, loss and betrayal.
The play is set in 1905 in lower Manhattan. Upon entering the theater, one is immediately awed by Brian Redfern’s richly detailed multi-level set, which represents different living spaces and transports the audience back to an earlier time. At the center of the story is Esther, an African-American seamstress who for 18 years has worked in a boarding house sewing delicate and exquisite undergarments for other women. During this time, she has seen her contemporaries marry and move on, and she longs to find the right man and start a new life. She has also set aside a considerable sum of money with which she hopes to open a beauty parlor which would cater to an African-American clientele.
Jasmine Rush gives a superb, grounded performance which captures her character’s vulnerability as well as her inner strength. Esther’s job selecting fabrics and delivering her creations takes her to different locations in the city. She is a frequent visitor to the fabric shop owned by Mr. Marks, a recently immigrated Orthodox Jew. In a sensitive and nuanced performance, Jerry Lee plays the warm and generous Mr. Marks, whose unspoken attraction to Esther is heartfelt and moving. As they discuss their appreciation for the elegant fabrics he sets aside for her, it is easy to imagine that in a different time they might have been kindred spirits. But such a liaison cannot be in the world they inhabit.
One of Esther’s clients is Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy society matron. Vividly and winsomely played by Emily Gatesman, her character’s bubbly enthusiasm belies the fact that she is unhappy in her marriage and unfulfilled by not having a child. The dialogue enacted between the characters is compelling and rich in humor.
Esther also delivers her merchandise to a bordello where a prostitute, Mayme, lives and works in a single room. Brittney Caldwell delivers a dynamic and affecting performance as the intelligent, talented and outspoken Mayme, whose aspirations of becoming a concert pianist seem forever out of reach. Though the women in the play are from different walks of life, they all face obstacles to realizing their dreams, and none are more acutely constrained than the women of color.
In a confident and authentic performance, Nora Cole plays Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s wise and pragmatic landlady. The widowed Mrs. Dickson married for security and is now the proprietor of a boarding house. When Esther begins receiving letters from George, a mysterious man in Panama whom she has never met, it is her landlady who warns her of possible folly. But the prospect of this long distance romance is too alluring, and Esther decides to respond.
Since she is illiterate, Esther seeks the help of Mrs. Van Buren to compose her responses. This delights Mrs. Van Buren, who eagerly joins in the deception. When the audience first sees the handsome George, he is standing amidst foliage as lush as his prose. He enthusiastically regales Esther with stories of his work on the Panama Canal and all the dangers that confront the workers there. She is intrigued and eventually agrees that he should come to New York, where they will marry. Landon Woodson convincingly plays George and adeptly navigates between the two opposing sides of his character’s personality.
It is in the second act where the true motivations of many of the characters are revealed. In the end, it is the reliable Mrs. Dickson who remains supportive and nonjudgmental, and we have no doubt that Esther will persevere with dignity and determination.
The play is masterfully directed by Scott Viets, and there is not one false note in this production. The interactions between the actors are wonderful, and all of the elements of the story come together in harmony. The creative period costumes are beautifully rendered by Diana Newington. Mike Sali’s expert lighting brings each diverse scene into focus. Sound design is by Ty Smith, and the intermittent Ragtime music is an inspired touch.
You won’t want to miss this powerful and evocative production. Audiences will likely be thinking of this play and discussing it long after the lights go down. The play has a limited engagement, so don’t delay making reservations. “Intimate Apparel” runs through Oct. 28. For tickets or information, visit sierrarep.org or call (209) 532-3120.