Playwright Lynn Nottage is best known for her two Pulitzer-Prize winning dramas Ruined and Sweat. She has, however, written some other plays that are just as excellent and equally strong.
One in particular is the rich character study, Intimate Apparel, now being presented at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad, where Director Melissa Coleman-Reed has assembled a talented cast.
Set in the Lower Manhattan of 1905, the story features an African-American spinster Esther (Tamara McMillian), who sews undergarments for women. During this period, she receives a note from a laborer working on the Panama Canal, a Caribbean man named George (Taurian McLeod). George begins to write her romantic letters and, based on these, Esther soon begins to fall in love with him.
While Esther’s relationship with George develops, the story depicts her interactions with several other characters, including her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Milena (Sellers) Phillips), a prostitute Mayme (Cashae Monya), an Orthodox Jewish tailor Mr. Marks (Tom Steward), and an unhappily married southern socialite, Mrs. Van Buren (Gerilyn Brault).
Nottage’s script for Intimate Apparel is comprised of two acts, each of which almost feels like a separate play, a strategy which works well in the context of the story. Act one is full of warmth, humor and the charming moments that Esther shares with the others. By the time the intermission comes along, the play seems to be wrapping up with a feel-good, near-fairy tale ending.
Act two, however, is intense, as the tale becomes darker and less sentimental. Nottage uses the intermission to provide a break between the two aspects of the story, and to lead the audience into the dramatic second half.
Although Esther gets along with the other characters in the play, Nottage generally depicts some of the other more intimate (pardon the pun) relationships as flawed. Van Buren’s marriage is questionable, Marks is engaged to a woman he has never met, men treat Mayme badly and even Dickson reveals information about her deceased husband that paints their marriage in a messy light.
All of these sub-stories are handled with realism and authenticity by Nottage.
Coleman-Reed and her design team stage the events beautifully, particularly when the story focuses on the letters written by George, and vividly express the contrast between the seemingly uneventful Lower Manhattan and the exciting Panama Canal.
Christopher Scott Murillo’s set depicts New York with authenticity and Michael Rathburn’s lighting visually serves to enhance the attraction that some of the characters share for others.
Jojo Siu’s costumes highlight the types of clothing that Esther works on and features details, such as the fabric in Marks’ shop, that feel true to 1905. MaeAnn Ross’ audio (which features original music composed by Charles Glaudini), uses subtle piano music that fits perfectly with the turn-of-the-century New York setting.
McMilian leads the cast with touching understatement and unexaggerated optimism, and her performance makes us empathize with Esther and want her to succeed.
Spending a good amount of time by himself onstage, McLeod recites George’s letters with a likable manner. He makes a strong impression early on, and his acting becomes increasingly engaging following his introduction to the story.
Phillips, Monya, Steward and Brault deliver performances full of depth, and are always a pleasure to watch through the evening.
Coleman-Reed’s interpretation of Intimate Apparel leaves a a big impact, and the play continues to prove that Nottage has a distinct voice.