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Sewing it Up

Sewing it Up
Intimate Apparel at Chautauqua

Intimate Apparel, a 2003 play written by Lynn Nottage, is receiving an elegant and moving production by the Chautauqua Theater Company under the direction of Vivienne Benesch. Set in New York City, 1905, the play tells the story of Esther, an African American seamstress who earns her living making intimate apparel for a clientele that ranges from society ladies to prostitutes. She has an unusual appreciation for fine fabric and finds a soulmate in Mr. Marks, an orthodox Jewish fabric salesman who virtually woos Esther with bolts of exquisite silks and trims. Both revel in the feel of the cloth and even the smell of the fabric dye. The complication of the story, however, comes when Esther begins to receive letters from Panama.

What develops is a play that borrows narratives familiar from Cyrano de Bergerac and Sweet Charity, but which Nottage weaves together in an achingly poetic and affecting way. Here, Nottage luxuriates in language in the same way that her heroine does in textiles.

Part of the joy of Chautauqua Theater Company is always the showcase of young talent. Here, Tangela Large, MFA in Acting from Brown University 2014, gives an exquisitely nuanced and understated performance as Ether, a woman who goes through emotional turmoil, but who never can indulge in the luxury of losing control. This is a steady performance, punctuated with bursts of wit and passion. The result is that we feel a closeness to this self-contained woman, and yearn for her happiness. We will be rewarded for our compassion, and corrected for our naiveté.

Each person in the world of the play takes an interest in Esther’s life.

The cast of characters includes three women. Kathryn Hunter Williams plays Mrs. Dickinson the landlady; Kate Eastman is Mrs. Van Buren, a lonely society lady; and Whitney White is Mayme, a prostitute. Each actress, under Benesch’s steady direction, creates a real and compelling woman, and serves to advance Esther’s story. The role of the women in the world of this play is, however, far different from the role of the men. This is, after all, a story of seductions. And while none of these seductions is, ultimately, sexual, they play out differently when the men in Esther’s world are involved.

There are two men.

Kyle Vincent Terry (also of Brown) walks an intriguing line as George, the man from Panama. His character seems to be one man in his letters and an entirely different man in person. He is the physical embodiment of the mystery that lures us through the narrative. Has Esther erred in trusting him? Is he simply better able to express himself in writing? Has Esther misled him by being effusive in letters that a prostitute helped her write, while being prim in person? Terry artfully reveals the man one scene and gesture at a time, aided by Nottage’s writing, which is both enigmatic and expressive. The playwright drops clues sparingly, obliging us to contemplate each hint, one at time. Terry walks this line expertly, allowing us to fall in love with the man of the letters, long before knowing the man of flesh.

Among the most delicious turns of the plot is the evolving relationship between Esther and Mr. Marks. This begins as a merchant/customer interaction before evolving into a comradery, a friendship, and finally, an unrequited affection. In this role, Matthew Baldiga is…adorable. The wide cultural divide between African-American seamstress and Jewish merchant allows for a slow and arguable erotic progression to unfold in this relationship. With the cultural divide between them so wide, a cup of tea is as steamy as this relationship can become, but Ms. Large and Mr. Baldiga get maximum impact from Nottage’s efficient writing.

I first became aware of Lynn Nottage when her play, Mud, River, Stone, had its world premiere at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 1996, previous to a 40-city tour. We had dinner at the old Allen Restaurant and she regaled me with her thoughts on playwriting, the role of the artist in society, and the place of Africa in American mythology. The play was a about an African American couple taken hostage at a formerly grand hotel while on their second honeymoon in Africa.

Since that time Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Ruined, a retelling of Mother Courage set against the backdrop of civil war in the Congo. It is often said that her plays seem as if they were written by different playwrights, but an underlying theme is the lives of women of African ancestry.

Intimate Apparel grew from a passport photograph of Nottage’s grandmother and her two daughters that the playwright found among her grandmother’s belongings after the woman’s death. The photo was devoid of emotion and revealed very little. She knew that her great grandmother had been a seamstress and had married a Barbadian immigrant, but little else. With no one living to ask, she began to research New York City of 1905 to create the story of this play.

The production is handsomely designed with a set by Alexis Distler—interestingly a series of bedrooms and a fabric shop—that have to be moved between scenes, often by the actors. Still, this moves swiftly and gracefully, sustaining the play’s momentum. The costumes by Anne Kennedy, in this play about fabric fetishes, attractively and appropriately evoke character and period.

The only frustration we might have with this production is that it plays for such a brief time! Intimate Apparel opened last weekend and will play through August 2nd at the Bratton Theatre. Good luck in securing a ticket!