This weekend, student director Julondre Brown ’10 takes on “Intimate Apparel,” Lynn Nottage’s DRA ’89 drama about love, or the lack thereof, in New York circa 1905. The drama centers on an unmarried, black seamstress who creates intimate garments for customers. But when the play is stripped of all the frivolity of corsets and lacy underwear, what lies underneath is an intriguing story of what it means to be loved.
Esther Mills (Naomi Bland ’10), blessed with a set of incredible sewing hands, has lived in the same boardinghouse since she was a child. Now 35, Esther remains a spinster. She seems fine with being alone, rejecting all of her landlady’s attempts to set her up with potential husbands. However, an illiterate Esther begins to receive letters from the mysterious and romantic George Armstrong (Brandon Rapp ’12) in Panama. With help from two of her clients — the unhappy, white, upper-class Mrs. Van Buren (O’Hagan Blades ’10), and the black, self-aware prostitute Mayme (Emily Jenda ’10) — Esther begins to forge a long-distance written relationship with Armstrong. At the same time, in one of drama’s strangest mating rituals, Esther and her fabric supplier Mr. Marks (Steven Kochevar ’09), a Jew promised to someone in Romania, create a bond over the fabrics he deals to her. Eventually George comes to New York to marry Esther, and the once charming man is nothing what he seemed. As all the characters struggle with love and matrimony, the words of Esther’s landlady resonate deeply: “Don’t let no man get a part of your heart without getting a piece of his.”
Overall, the acting in “Intimate Apparel” was excellent. Bland deserves to be recognized for her marvelous turn as Esther Mills. Her interpretation of the worn-out spinster was very honest. When Bland matter-of-factly sighs that there “ain’t gonna be no more chances, so I said yes,” in reference to her character’s marriage, Esther becomes real; she is a practical and lonely woman who is tired of being tired. Bland handles the uneducated “colored girl” accent with grace. Despite her improper speech, Esther never sounds illiterate. In fact, she is the wisest of all the characters. Most important, Bland gives Esther heart, and by the end of the play, the audience is praying that it doesn’t get broken.
Kochevar is adorable as the excitable and charming Mr. Marks, a Hasidic fabric store owner. Even with his tragic Romanian Jew accent, which is amusingly reminiscent of that bat, Bartok, from “Anastasia,” you can’t help but watch him with bated breath as he passes his silks and wools to Esther.
The performance by Nicholle Manners ’10, as Mrs. Dickson, fell a bit flat. Her portrayal of the already rambunctious character of Esther’s landlady was overacted. Between Manners’ hands wildly gesticulating with every sentence and her overemphasis of the dialogue, it was hard to pay attention to the action of the play.
“Intimate Apparel” is the kind of play that could easily become just another historical play about the plight of the black population before the Civil Rights Movement. And often, the action is deeply entrenched in racial tensions, such as when it is revealed that Esther is not allowed to step foot inside Mrs. Van Buren’s house. Yet the racial issues take a backseat to a greater theme. “Intimate Apparel” is, above all, a story about love and a story about life.