Actor’s Express is presenting two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel,” directed by Ibi Owolabi, running through April 17.
“Intimate Apparel” is a lovely work of great tenderness, longing, frustration, and courage. It is set in 1905 in New York City, where we meet Esther (Vallea E. Woodbury), a skilled, talented seamstress who specializes in ladies’ lingerie. Being Black and female, her prospects for big-time success seem limited, but Esther is resilient and persistent and knows how good she is. She dreams of having her own shop, a fine “beauty parlor for colored women.”
As it is, her clients include everyone from wealthy 5th Avenue women like Mrs. Van Buren (Candi Vandizandi) to sex workers like Mayme (Valeka Jessica). Esther also buys fabric from Mr. Marks (Ross Benjamin), a kind Jewish Romanian cloth merchant, who is not only impressed by Esther’s talent, but by the gentle Esther herself.
That’s the thing about Esther: Everyone who knows her likes her tremendously; that includes her dynamic landlady Mrs. Dickson (Terry Henry); the two have a delightful rapport. But I think Esther’s best pal is the saucy, magnetic, piano-playing Mayme, played superbly by Ms. Jessica.
Of course appearances can be deceptive; every one of the characters mentioned is somewhat unhappy with their lives in the romance department; either they have no current partner or they’re like Mrs. Van Buren, whose husband is often on extensive trips abroad, leaving her lonely and seldom without a drink in her hand.
As for Esther, she has recently realized that at 35, she is at the exact center of her life and will probably remain single; she does not consider herself very attractive, and she would like a man in her life.
Suddenly, by way of a mutual acquaintance, she begins to receive letters from a Caribbean man named George Armstrong (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), who is working on the Panama Canal. We meet the handsome, strapping George as he reads eloquent letters to her — from the side of the stage. Without ever having met Esther, he soon proposes marriage.
When things sound too good to be true, they usually are — or they certainly could be. Unfortunately, Esther cannot read, so she enlists the help of Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren in writing return letters. Mrs. Dickson helps also and delights in giving “advice to the lovelorn” to Esther.
Esther and George decide to marry, sight unseen, and they finally meet in New York. And that, dear reader, is all the plot I can give you. You must see the play to discover what happens.
“Intimate Apparel” is one of the most perfectly cast plays I’ve ever seen at the Express— or anywhere, for that matter. I could write one of George’s love letters about each of the six actors, starting with Ms. Woodbury, who brings Esther to incandescent life, with her sweetness, innocence, and strength. Mr. Ross’ finely calibrated, almost delicate performance as Mr. Marks is lovely; in another age and time, he and Esther might be a couple, but they both know it cannot be.
I offer further plaudits to Ms. Vandizandi’s Mrs. Van Buren, Ms. Henry’s Mrs. Dickson, and Mr. Hopkins-Turner’s George.
There’s a gorgeous set and costumes by Jennifer Rose Ivey and Kendra Johnson, respectively.
The single problem for me is the pace; I’m hoping Director Owolabi has picked things up a bit; two and a half hours (including intermission) is really too long for this play.
Otherwise, you have some fine theatre waiting for you, written by an important playwright.
Tickets and information: actors-express.com.