By Annette Hinkle
Every once in a while, a play comes along that hits deep down in the core — in a place where memory, passion and empathy reside. These are the rare theatrical offerings that cause you to stop and ponder the rich tapestry that makes up each life, and the meandering chances and unassuming by-ways and tides that alter the course of personal history through the very act of living.
Bay Street Theater’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” is just such a play. Quietly complex and devastatingly poignant, it offers a beautiful portrait of perseverance and steadfast resolve in the face of the societal expectations of the early 20th century.
This play also speaks to the American dream and the sacrifices countless generations have willingly made in order to build a better future for descendants they will never meet.
“Intimate Apparel” takes place in 1905 New York City in what is now the Garment District, and this production, which is directed by Bay Street’s artistic director Scott Schwartz, stars Kelly McCreary (of “Grey’s Anatomy”) as Esther Mills, a no-nonsense African-American seamstress. Esther arrived in New York at age 17, a refugee from the Jim Crow south, and now, having just turned 35, is still living in (and working out of) the same rooming house she first moved to 18 years earlier.
The place is owned by the loud-talking, but well-meaning Mrs. Dickson (Portia), a widow with strong opinions on most subjects, and as the play opens Esther is in her room working at her sewing machine while a party is going on downstairs. It’s a send-off for yet another boarding house resident who is moving on, having secured a husband and Mrs. Dickson goads Esther to join the fun by hinting there is an eligible bachelor present that she really ought to consider.
But Esther is having none of it. Fiercely independent, she has carved out a successful career on her own and has socked away a substantial sum of money in the hopes of one day opening a beauty parlor. Though she realizes she is no beauty herself, if she is to find a man at all, it will not be the bachelor downstairs, but rather someone she truly loves.
In the meantime, she is dedicated to making elaborate, high quality undergarments for the women of Manhattan — from the well-kept and white 5th Avenue socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka), to the jaded, but earnest Mayme (Shayna Small), an African-American prostitute and piano player who lives (and works) out of her bedroom in the Tenderloin and is the closest thing to a friend Esther has in New York.
Then there is the endearing Mr. Marks (Blake DeLong), the Lower East Side fabric merchant whom Esther visits when she needs material for her work. An Orthodox Jew from Romania, though Mr. Marks and Esther couldn’t be from more different worlds, they find common ground in their shared passion for fine fabrics and craftsmanship.
When Esther receives a letter from a man named George Armstrong (Edward O’Blenis), who is digging a canal in far off Panama, she thinks she may have found her true love. Though they have never met, George’s romantic letters move her. Because Esther is illiterate, her friends read his letters to her and, in turn, write replies back based on the sentiments she wants to share with him.
Of course, appearances can be deceiving and reality never quite measures up to the imagination that precedes it, as Esther realizes when George arrives in New York ready to begin their complicated life together.
Though told from the point of view of African-Americans in turn-of-the-century New York, at its heart, “Intimate Apparel” is a timeless immigrant story that also speaks of friendship, women, and the comprises they have historically made in order to survive.
This is a truly amazing production with a cast that can only be described as stellar. McCreary is particularly powerful and captivating in her portrayal of Esther, while as Mayme, Small offers a fine portrait of the pragmatic working girl who nevertheless retains her sense of self. Also moving is DeLong’s tender portrayal of the gentle Mr. Marks who truly knows Esther’s heart. Kudos also to Schwartz’s apt direction, which is well-considered and allows the subtext of the material to shine. There is so much left unspoken in this play, and every bit of it is keenly felt by the audience.
As the name implies, this play is one that takes place in the intimate spaces behind closed doors and the bedrooms of Mrs. Van Buren, Mayme and Esther herself are the primary sets, while a clever revolving stage by designer Jeff Cowie takes us (and the characters) from one locale to the next.
As we move from one setting to another, it soon becomes clear that in Esther’s world, the luxury of choice belongs only to those with options — something that is hardly lost on us as we watch Esther give herself over wholly to a man who is clearly unsuitable.
In this realm, Esther is not alone. Mayme is exploited on an hourly basis by her clients, and despite her fine clothes and social connections, Mrs. Van Buren is hopelessly alone in a loveless marriage, while Mrs. Dickson has been stuck in her life as a landlady since the death of her husband.
It is in the unlikely figure of Mr. Marks that Esther finds a purity of spirit and soul. Their relationship is authentic and tender, built on a passion for their respective businesses that runs deep, yet stays silent, as it must. Like Esther, Mr. Marks is expecting to build his life with a spouse he has not yet met. In his case, the match is the product of a family arrangement — a tradition that must be kept, regardless of what the heart may say.
It’s a particularly endearing and heartbreaking sentiment and from where we sit in the 21st century, we can only imagine how painful it must have been for those drawn to one another who had to deny their feelings because of the social or financial constraints of the day, which were considerable — constraints as binding as the corsets that Esther makes for her customers.
Ties that bind, indeed, until we find the strength to cut the strings and declare ourselves liberated at last.
Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” runs through July 30 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. For tickets, visit baystreet.org or call the box office at (631) 725-9500.