Photo by Stratton McCrady
A photograph of someone without a name sets the imagination abuzz; who the person was, what their life was like, what secrets they kept. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel shows us the life of someone who would have remained unnamed, a footnote in history, with magnificent results.
Esther (Nehassaiu deGannes) is an African-American seamstress in New York City in the early 1900s. She stitches luxurious undergarments discreetly, and has managed to save up a tidy nest egg doing so; her dream is to open a beauty parlor where African-American women can be treated as well as white women are. She is in her mid-thirties, and has watched the women around her marry; her loneliness leads her to into a correspondence with George (Lee Edward Colston II), a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal, while pining after Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), the Hasidic man from whom she buys her fabric.The match between Esther and Mr. Marks is impossible, so she agrees to marry George sight unseen – and chaos enters her neatly ordered life.
Director Daniela Varon has assembled a stellar cast for the production, and her direction is flawless. deGannes’ Esther is as fully formed as anyone you’d meet in real life; her hopes and dreams are clear enough to touch, and her heartbreak and loneliness is ours to share. She is a force onstage, and everyone working with her benefits from her strength. Colston, as George, is a hurricane; too good to be true, but a man with enough animal magnetism to draw others to him. Medina Senghore, as Esther’s friend Mayme, is electric; longing for something more while remaining practical, having lived in a world where dreams only come true when you’re sleeping. Schrider’s Mr. Marks is the male version of Esther, only kept from her by social constraints; their love of fabric and deep understanding of one another makes for some of the best scenes of the show.
Sandra Goldmark’s set design is a wondrous puzzle box. Downstage is the main playing area while upstage, behind curtains mimicking some of Esther’s fabric, hides a secondary area, where George reads his letters to Esther. The entire set has the heavy, lush feel of good fabric; the colors are jewel-toned, the beds are draped in inviting spreads, the furniture polished and gleaming.
Loneliness and yearning connects the characters in the production. How far will we go to connect with another person, to no longer be alone? Whose feelings will we forget in our personal quest to fulfill that need, to fill that emptiness? Theater shows us truths we may not be willing to admit to ourselves, the dark sides of ourselves we hide in fear of being judged. These characters bring their pain out into the light so we know we are not alone – sharing their truth so as to lighten our own load. This is theater at its most powerful, and it is not to be missed.
“Intimate Apparel”; Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, MA; through August 13; $69-$29; Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission; http://www.shakespeare.org/