Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage shares a story influenced by her great-grandmother in her latest play Intimate Apparel to close the McCarter‘ 2016-2017 Theater Series. Nottage weaves a tale of the unchronicled history of African-Americans in the early 1900s that is rarely told. Jade King Carroll, director of last year’s The Piano, brings Nottage’s story to life on the appropriately intimate Berlind stage.
Feeling like an unattractive spinster, 35-year-old Esther Mills (Quincy Tyler Berstine) is a self-employed seamstress living in Lower Manhattan in 1905. Esther creates corsets for some of Manhattan’s wealthiest women, as well as lingerie for the less fortunate. She rents a room in Mrs. Dickson’s (Brenda Pressley) boarding house and her modest life seems mundane until she receives a letter from a stranger that triggers a domino effect with the relationships of four other people in her life.
The play is very dialogue-driven and is enhanced by haunting piano music and visually luxurious fabrics. Even though Intimate Apparel is a drama, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Bernstine is strong as the main character, Esther, who feels sorry for herself since all the young women in the boarding house have gotten married and have left her behind. She brilliantly executes the struggle her character is battling and has the audience rooting for her during her journey. Balancing Esther’s weaknesses with her strengths, Berntine delivers a powerful performance of hope.
The other characters have also been nicely developed. Each has a special relationship with Esther that becomes more complex. It’s nice to see layers of the characters revealed, which gives the connections more depth.
George Armstrong (Galen Kane) is a Bajan construction worker helping to build the Panama Canal. He meets the deacon’s son of Esther’s church and writes to her for companionship. After completion of his duties, he makes his way to New York City to meet his penpal. Kane allows his character to show his multifaceted personality delivering a strong performance. His accent was good; however, he can be difficult to understand if he speaks too quickly.
Mrs. Van Buren (Kate MacCluggage) is a transplanted southerner and is now a New York socialite, whose husband is rarely home and she has no children. Esther creates corsets for her. MacCluggage cleverly builds a relationship with Esther, as she reveals her loneliness. She is subtle and effective.
Tasso Feldman plays Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jew from Romania. He sells fabric to Esther, who he says is his best customer. Feldman shines in his role and I think he and Berstine have the best on-stage chemistry. His mannerisms were genuine and Feldman brought a realistic presence of turn-of-the-century immigration to the stage.
Mayme (Jessica Francis Dukes) is a lady of the evening who has a piano in her room and has hopes of a musical career. She purchases lingerie from Esther. Dukes and Berstine also have a great chemistry together. Dukes is very engaging and brings great energy to the stage.
Jade King Carroll has created an amazing production. Intimate Apparel is both mesmerizing and surprising! It’s entertaining and thought-provoking. I highly recommend this play for all 14 and over.
Intimate Apparel runs 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. Performances run May 5, 2017 – June 4, 2017, in the Berlind Theatre. Single tickets range from $25 – $96.50 and are on sale now online at McCarter Theatre, by phone at (609) 258-2787, or in person at the McCarter Theatre Ticket Office Monday – Saturday 10 AM – 6 PM, located at 91 University Place in Princeton.