A revealing play about what happens when romance goes tragically wrong.
In her award winning play, “Intimate Apparel,” Lynn Nottage explores what happens when the human desire for love is soiled by the unforeseen circumstances of life. From November 6th until December 2nd, Pasadena Playhouse theatre patrons can experience this dilemma through the diffident eyes of a Black seamstress.
Set in 1905 New York, the play chronicles the life of Esther (Vanessa Williams), a talented seamstress whose clients range from wealthy White women to prostitutes. Residing in a boarding house where young women frequently move in single and move out with the man of their dreams, 35 year old Esther finds herself longing for the companionship of a husband. By a stroke of luck, a mysterious Caribbean man named George, a laborer who works on the Panama Canal, begins to write her love letters from abroad. Faced with the personal challenge of illiteracy, however, Esther relies on the penmanship of two of her clients—a Black prostitute named Mayme (Kristy Johnson), and a wealthy White client named Mrs. Van Buren (Angel Reda)—who read and write her letters for her.
Meanwhile, a more local love interest develops between Esther and a Hasidic shopkeeper from whom she buys fabrics. Separated by societal taboos, culture, and religion, however, the two are unable to be together. Instead Esther makes the misguided decision to marry George, who remains sight unseen until their wedding day. During their brief union, her deceptive new husband crushes her dreams of opening her own beauty parlor and manages to squander all of her life savings on gambling and prostitutes. After bleeding her dry, he leaves her and she is back to square one.
It should come as no surprise that this tale of desperation ends badly. What you may not anticipate, however, is the slow pacing of this play. If you’ve seen other works directed by Sheldon Epps, such as “Blues for an Alabama Sky”, you know that he does a great job of adding just enough suspense to keep that nervous feeling of anticipation in the pit of your stomach. “Intimate Apparel”, however, aims to embody a more realistic approach to storytelling. In real life we aren’t necessarily faced with constant suspense or the typical twists and turns presented in fiction. We are often slowed by the drudgeries of the unforeseen, and our insecurities may serve to wear us down. One may find that the play has a similar impact.
Epps suggests that the characters in “Intimate Apparel” are supposed to be more relatable. The idea that we all have this inherent desire to feel complete with another person is universal. Thus for some the struggles of these characters may be commonplace and completely familiar. Not so with the younger generation of women, who tend to value independence over unhealthy relationships; especially with someone whom they’ve never met. It may be difficult to empathize with a 35 year old seamstress who keeps questionable company, marries an overzealous foreigner sight unseen, and then willingly gives him her life’s savings. Modern day theater-goers may find Esther difficult to swallow, yet somehow still palatable.
The playwright’s treatment of diversity also has a certain appeal. Los Angelinos and New Yorkers alike can certainly relate to the complexity of the melting pot. Tucked nicely under the layers of “Intimate Apparel” is the unlikely and unspeakable love interest that develops between the Hasidic salesman and Esther—a relationship that would have been unanimously frowned upon during that time. Esther’s decision to play it safe may leave one wondering how things might have turned out for her if she had taken a chance.