A Sensual And Shattering ‘Intimate Apparel’ Lives Up To Its Name

The word “intimate” almost feels like an understatement when it comes to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of Lynn Nottage’s seminal 2003 play Intimate Apparel. Loosely inspired by a photograph Nottage found of her seamstress great grandmother, the play takes place in early 20th century New York and gives us a glimpse into the life of Esther Mills, a Black woman who has spent her life sewing intimate apparel for ladies and living unattached in a humble boarding house. 

In the play’s first scene, Esther has just turned 35, bringing her unmarried status and fears of spinsterhood to the center of her attention. Referred to in the script as too plain to be of interest to many suitors, Esther is nevertheless too proud and principled to settle for anything less than true love. Gradually, she comes to believe that she has found such a love in George, a laborer working in Panama with whom she has developed an extensive written correspondence. 

George and Esther’s relationship develops throughout the first act before reaching a turning point just before intermission, with his letters to her represented in the form of monologues the character delivers from across the world. 

But, as she ponders their potential partnership, Esther shares intimacy of various kinds with others in her life, with the play consisting almost entirely of a series of two-person scenes between her and them. There’s her landlady Mrs. Dickson, who seems to see her as something of a surrogate daughter (Esther’s own mother having passed away when she was 17); fellow boarder Mayme, a sweet-natured lady of the night; Mrs. Van Buren, a wealthy client who confides in Esther about her marital issues and high society woes; and Mr. Marks, a charming orthodox Jewish tailor whose attraction to Esther is obviously reciprocated but who cannot act on their mutual feelings due to his impending arranged marriage and the two’s religious differences. 

In fact, Mr. Marks’ religious beliefs means that he and Esther not only cannot become romantically involved but cannot even touch, at least in theory. Yet, in a scene late in Act One, 

Esther breaches the boundary, an experience she later recounts to Mrs. Van Buren as such: 

“I touched someone . . . who I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch. I touched them because I wanted to,” she says, seemingly surprised at herself and her newly awakening desires. 

In moments like these, Intimate Apparel seems to be almost a delayed coming of age story for the prim Esther, who is not only unmarried but who has avoided all sexual entanglements as she instead devoted herself to her profession. Admirably, she approaches sewing as an art form as well as a way of making a living, and has been saving up her money in the hopes of opening up a salon where: 

“Colored ladies get pampered and treated real nice. ’Cause no one does it for us. We just as soon wash our heads in a bucket and be treated like mules,” she explains, one of the many subtle ways that Esther’s status as a member of a marginalized racial group is alluded to in Nottage’s script. 

While the obstacles and discrimination faced by the play’s four Black characters (Esther, Mrs. Dickson, Mayme, and George) clearly informs their psychology and their relationships with each other as well as those  between Esther and the white Mr. Marks and Mrs. Van Buren, racism in no way feels as if it is what Intimate Apparel is “about,” which helps the script to avoid any intimations of preachiness.

What the play does feel as if it’s about, though, is intimacy; not only the intimacy shared by lovers in their most private moments but the intimacy inherent in any human relationship that has passed through a certain threshold of familiarity. 

The kind of intimacy that the many Johns who pass through Mayme’s bedroom never share with her but that Mayme and Esther certainly share in their close friendship; the kind of intimacy that can be created in years of sharing a home and a table, in Mrs. Dickson’s case, and that can be created by mutual respect and shared passion for a craft in Mr. Marks’. 

In the case of Mrs. Van Buren, her and Esther’s intimacy is of the sort that can be created by the sharing of secrets, and, more surprisingly, in tender adjustments made to still-worn underclothes. And though it is, finally, with George, that Esther does end up surrendering to physical intimacy—an experience that, after she gets over her initial reticence, she appears to very much enjoy—their emotional and ideological disconnection from one another in some ways paints their relationship as the least intimate among her five. 

This feels especially true given the sensual chemistry that seems to be present not only in Esther and Mr. Marks’ understated flirtation but in the way she relates to the play’s other female characters, though it is only in one of these relationships that the possibility of romantic attraction is alluded to.  

There is, perhaps, also a certain sensuality to Nottage’s lyrical use of language that heightens these impressions, which is only enhanced in this staging’s delicate direction by Be Boyd and outstanding work by the play’s cast, which consists of four actors who I surmise from their bios to be out-of-towners and two outstanding area actors. 

The first of them, Rita Cole, takes on the lead role of Esther, and masterfully rises to the challenge of conveying her character’s contradictions and taking us along on her intense emotional journey. Cole’s Esther is at once guarded and vulnerable, principled and uncertain, self-contained and self-revealing; someone who, despite a seeming desire to maintain autonomy, cannot help but sacrifice pieces of her heart to near everyone she meets.

The other is Jovon Jacobs, who excels first at giving the impression of a rough-around-the-edges but perhaps good-hearted laborer and then revealing his character’s more complex mechanisms in Act 2. His is a performance that’s incredibly courageous in its rawness, in the primal way that Jacobs inhabits the role and the ugly resentments he gives full, uninhibited voice to. 

As Mr. Marks, Jordan Sobel seemed in perfect contrast to Jacobs as he conveyed a sense of genuineness and civility as his good-guy character. Gabrielle Lee and Krystal Mosley seem to embody a similar duality as Mrs. Dixon and Mayme, with the former’s matronly ways in clear opposition to the latter’s loose and alluring manner, though both characters are ultimately likable if occasionally misguided in their own respective approach.

As the occasionally insensitive but mostly sympathetic Mrs. Van Buren, Gracie Winchester came off as a little younger and less mannered than I initially imagined the character, having previously come across the play’s script in a college playwriting class, but she is nevertheless effective in portraying her character’s interesting mix of earnestness and entitlement. 

However, though the building stakes of Intimate Apparel’s story had me fully emotionally engaged by the end of Act 1, some of the play’s earlier scenes did strike me as a little slow-moving, making the evening as a whole feel a little over-long. 

I also noticed that it seemed as if an unusual number of audience members left during intermission. Though it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have found the play’s first half objectionable enough to warrant such an action, I’ll also note that I had the benefit of knowing where the play was going from my previous encounter with itso perhaps it may have struck those unfamiliar as a little more tedious and meandering. 

The beginning of Act 2, though, grabbed me immediately with its achingly awkward opening and seemed to keep both I and the rest of the audience enraptured throughout. As the story progressed, I found myself wincing, gasping, and, eventually, yes, tearing up—and the fact that I did overhear others who seemed to be reacting similarly keeps me from writing myself off as simply too sentimental for my own damn good. 

The conclusion the play comes to feels at once as shattering and beautifully inevitable as those of my favorite tragedies and surprisingly optimistic, so I won’t spoil it here for the uninitiated. If there are any other objections to be had with the play’s script, it might be that the twists and turns it took struck me as just a little too clearly constructed to be quite plausible. 

It also did cross my mind that I didn’t notice an intimacy choreographer credited despite the fact that at least one scene represented intense physically intimate activity in a way that probably could’ve called for one. But those are just a few seams visible in an otherwise gorgeous garment, to borrow the play’s powerful extended metaphor inspired by Esther’s profession. Though the character describes her expertise and her existence as one that “hardly seems a life worthy of words,” it’s a life that Nottage’s poetry and Dramaworks’ rendering has assured is, indeed, worthy of the stage. Seeing as this is also definitely a work worthy of an audience, you have until this April 17th to try on this Intimate Apparel for yourself!

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