If you’ve ever wanted to get intimate with the art of theatre, a great start might be at Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of “Intimate Apparel.” The 2004 work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage has slowly become a regional theatre staple and, given that the play premiered in Baltimore as a co-commission by Center Stage, it isn’t surprising that the show has become popular here as well. FPCT gets close enough to the soul of the show that I found myself quite enraptured with the result. Loosely inspired by a photograph Nottage found of her great grandmother who was a seamstress, the play takes place in early 20th century New York. It gives us a glimpse into the life of Esther Mills, a Black woman who has spent her life sewing intimate apparel and living unattached in a humble boarding house.
…the animating, emotional force of this band of talented actors has assured is worthy of the stage. It is an effort worthy to be seen by an audience…
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 real 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. 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 those people.
They include 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 they cannot act on their mutual feelings due to his impending arranged marriage and their religious differences.
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. “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 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. “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.
Though racism clearly colors Esther’s experience and that of the other black characters throughout the play, it never feels as if that is what the play is about, which helps the script to avoid any intimations of preachiness. It is simply the story of one humble woman who perseveres in spite of these obstacles. By the time the play reaches its shattering conclusion, you will likely have grown to care about her a great deal, though Zipporah Brown’s performance could’ve done with somewhat more modulation given the tendency towards occasional overacting and fever-pitch extremes. Because there were similar issues, to a lesser extent, in the performances of other actors who were otherwise quite effective in their roles, I suspect that this unevenness may lie more in the direction by Belle Burr.
The standout among the supporting players was Najah Bayyann who brings an earthy and sensual energy to her character Mayme. Bayyann also has the chance to showcase a quite lovely singing voice in one interlude. It is both a joyous release for her and Esther and a moving encapsulation of their characters’ aching longing for love.
Sharon Maguire is appropriately blithe as Mrs. Van Buren, a high-society lady who seems well-meaning but is somewhat oblivious to the shielding nature of her privilege. Nathan Suberi brings a quiet kindliness to his role of Mr. Marks. Though the impression made by Jenelle Brown as Mrs. Dickson was initially dominated by a few awkward tendencies, these seemed to dissipate in later scenes as she relaxed into the role.
Last but not least was Mo Stewart as George. He can only be judged with the caveat that he appeared to be filling in at the last minute for Festus Aguai and read the majority of his lines from a script. This almost struck me as a deliberate choice during the first half of the play since the character only appears to read the letters he has been sending Esther. It was more noticeable during Act 2 but Stewart managed to hit some nice emotional beats despite this wrinkle.
Niya John’s lighting design seemed, at times, not quite on point. Sound design by Heiko succeeded in matching the emotional beats of the story but did not convey a distinct aesthetic in its mix of period and modern music. The set designed by Faith Gaskin and Kai Blackford allowed for an interesting interplay between the play’s different physical spaces but also appeared unnecessarily cluttered, appearing to hamper freedom of movement among the actors.
A bright spot were the the costumes by Britany Marriott. While likely not quite period accurate, they were appropriate to the show’s setting, characters, and a joy to watch. To borrow the play’s powerful extended metaphor inspired by Esther’s profession, even the show’s flaws are just a few seams visible in an otherwise gorgeous garment.
Though the Esther describes her expertise and her existence as one that “hardly seems a life worthy of words,” it’s a life that Nottage’s lyrical poetry and the animating, emotional force of this band of talented actors has assured is worthy of the stage. It is an effort worthy to be seen by an audience and you have until December 10 to try this “Intimate Apparel” on for yourself!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Sexual situations and implications.
“Intimate Apparel” runs through December 10, 2023 at Fells Point Corner Theater, 251 S. Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231, Friday & Saturday – 8 p.m., Sunday – 2 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.