The intimate Everyman Theatre is just about the perfect place for a re-staging of playwright Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. First produced in Baltimore in 2003, the play is full of small moments that say bigger things and moments of closeness that would be easily lost in a larger space.
Running through November 19, the production is one of Nottage’s best-known works. Most of Nottage’s work, including Intimate Apparel and her two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Sweat and Ruined, centers on the lives of black women. The MacArthur Genius’ prize for Sweat this year made her the first woman to win the Drama prize twice.
And from Intimate Apparel’s return to its birthplace, it’s not hard to see why critics have been such fans of her work.
The show is paced like the train whose clanging punctuated the silence of the small set on several occasions. It slows almost to a stop and lingers on some scenes, and it barrels through others almost too quickly. Driving the action is Esther, a black seamstress of ladies’ underthings in turn-of-the-century New York, expertly brought to life by Dawn Ursula. The earnestness and sincerity of her expressions is often more telling than than her words, but that’s not to say her delivery of Nottage’s lines is lacking. The opposite is true. Ardently hopeful and crushingly realistic, Esther is a lonely soul with wonderful dreams but feet set firmly on the ground. For all her practicality, she longs for lovely things—a fine fabric, beautiful words, a loving touch.
The characters around her are few but rich. Beth Hylton’s Mrs. Van Buren has a sing-songy drawl and a wonderful, wicked laugh that brings to mind Blanche Devereaux. The striking voices of George (Bueka Uwemedimo) and Mayme (Jade Wheeler) are luckily given their due attention by Nottage’s script. One long and booming, the other short and lilting, the two make an interesting pair in more ways than one.
Rounding out the cast are a delightful gossipy mother hen in Mrs. Dickson (Jenn Walker) and Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks, played by Drew Kopas. Kopas makes the most out of the least in his role. And the scenes in his small shop are some of the very best in the show. There’s so much between Esther and Mr. Marks that cannot be said, so one-sided looks and heart-wrenching silences fill in for dialogue. Kopas’ Mr. Marks says all the audience needs to understand through careful movements and familiar expressions. Like the fine embroidered silks over which he and Esther bond, it’s masterful work.
Words come second to moments in Intimate Apparel. What can’t be spoken aloud is said loudly enough through light touches, the care with which a garment is eased over shoulders, and beautiful fabrics tossed carelessly away.
Esther’s story is one of fear of loneliness, hope for the future and an acceptance of one’s reality that are so often at odds with one another. And like reality, there are no easy answers. Loose ends aren’t easily tied off and snipped clean. Instead we are left to want and to wonder, just as Esther does, going faithfully forward about our work.
The care and success with which Intimate Apparel has been brought to the Everyman stage bodes well for a season of small casts with big stories. Audiences will see Ursula and Hylton together again in next month’s The Revolutionists. After the joy they brought to most of their scenes together over the past weeks, the possibilities for what the two will be able to do with a whole comedy are endless.