Intimate Apparel at Eclipse Theatre

eclipse theatreBy Lynn Nottage

Directed by Steve Scott

Produced by Eclipse Theatre company

At the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago

Powerful drama about loneliness and our human need to connect features fine performances

Continuing their year of Lynn Nottage plays, Steve Scott and the artists at Eclipse Theatre have  mounted a worthy, well acted production of Intimate Apparel.

Playwright Lynn Nottage has emerged as a master story teller with a keen instinct for developing characters. Her six characters in Intimate Apparel each warrant a play of their own but only Esther (the empathetic Kelly Owens) gets Nottage’s focus. We quickly love Esther. We become fully engaged  as we meet Esther who is a thirty-five year old single African-American women living in lower Manhattan in 1905 in Mrs. Dickson’s (Frances Wilkerson’s) boarding house.

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Esther  is a seamstress who creates lavishly beautiful intimate apparel for New York’s finest women. Esther migrated from the South seventeen years ago after losing her family to sickness. She has lived a simple life of sewing and church on Sunday.

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She saves money for her dream business of a beauty polar for Black women. She doesn’t socialize.

Not blessed with good looks, Esther has never found a man and she longs for someone to caress her and give her the security of marriage. African-American single woman in 1905 were invisible and Nottage gives visibility to those who lived quietly in anonymity. The empathy we feel for the women in Intimate Apparel comes from Nottage’s  realism and her lyrically eloquent dialogue that gets us to like each character as soon as we meet them.

The honesty of Mrs. Dickson, as played by Frances Wilkerson, rings true as she tells Esther of her dealings with men, especially her late husband, and how she was determined not to become a washer-woman like her mother, but an independent woman. Dickson shelters Esther who is desperate to find a man, Esther starts corresponding by mail with a man working on the Panama Canal. Since she’s illiterate, she gets Mrs.Van Buren (the winning Skye Shrum), a white Manhattan socialite originally from the South and an apparel customer of hers to read her George’s (Brandon Greenhouse) letters and Van Buren insists she’ll write Esther’s replies. We see that Van Buren is, despite being married, a lonely unfulfilled woman who has only Esther for a friend.

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We hear George’s beautifully lyrical responses to Esther’s sparkling letters. George is a handsome, muscular Barbados’ native lonely for a woman and longing to come to America to meet marry Esther and take part in the American Dream. We hear marvelous language as the two court via the post. George seems too good to be true.

Esther periodically visits Mr. Marks (Eustace Allen) the Orthodox Jewish yarn salesman. They share more than a love for fine fabric and the undertow of mutual attraction looms whenever they are together. Both know that they’ll never be intimate.
Esther makes sensual apparel for her friend, Mayme, (Ebony Joy) a prostitute from the Tenderloin. Esther remarks to her that the white society ladies want the intimate apparel that the whores wear and the whores want the apparel that the high society ladies wear. Mayme, played with rich truthfulness by the sensual Ebony Joy, is a brutally real survivor who yearns for love and a man to sweep her off her feet. She understands life and a man’s appetites.

After George arrives in New York, in spite of Mrs. Dickson’s warnings, Esther marries him. The scene on their wedding night where Esther is so shy and bashful when George beckons her to their bed is funny and heart warming.  Act one ends with Esther’s fairy tale love story apparently working.

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In act two, we learn that George isn’t the black knight come to make Esther happy and secure. Both had others write their letters so the marriage was based on fraud. George is an opportunist who married the naive seamstress in order to get to America. He quickly loses his macho pride when he confronts the racism in 1905 New York when he can’t find the skilled work he is qualified to do. He resorts to drinking, gambling and whoring (with guess who?). Esther senses George’s restlessness yet she only sees the good in him until his coldness and cruelty jumps out at her.

In a desperate attempt to keep him, she gives him her life’s savings so he can buy 12 draught horses for a delivery business. Esther knows in her heart that he’ll leave her once he gets his hands on her money but she also knows that if she refuses him, he’ll also leave. She is trapped because she knows that a wife must support her man and therefore giving him her money becomes an act of faith. She had to do it. We feel her pain as she confronts Mayme who thought George would whisk her away once he had a bankroll. Both women lose yet Esther forgives Mayme for sleeping with George.

In a powerful scene, Esther gives Mr. Marks, who always wears black, the gold Japanese silk jacket she made for George that she rescued from Mayme. Mr. Marks was impressed and even tries the jacket on.

Esther returns to Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house where she lived for seventeen years to get her old room back and Mrs. Dickson greets her with open arms. As the scene ends, Esther thanks Mrs. Dickson for not asking what happened to her marriage
We see the conflicts and struggles of common people as they deal with race, gender and class barriers in their pursuit the American Dream. Intimate Apparel is an ode to the kindness and basic goodness of that large invisible segment of single African-American women whose suppressed passions and thwarted dreams touch us. Their strong faith and determination paved the way for future generations to be able to realize a share of the American Dream. Lynn Nottage beautifully brings these invisible woman to life in a compelling story.

Lynn Nottage is a major playwright whose character development and rich use of fluid language is in the fine tradition of August Wilson.  Intimate Apparel  is a warm, heart wrenching drama that will reinvigorate our beliefs in the basic goodness of humanity. We love and empathize with these folks, especially Esther, Kelly Owens, Ebony Joy and Eustace Allen delivered exceptional performances.  This is a marvelous production of a terrific play.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: July 20, 2014

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Intimate Apparel page at theatreinchicago.com

At the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL, call 773-935-6875, http://www.eclipsetheatre.com, tickets $20 – $28, special Tuesday, July 22 at 7:30 pm, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2hours, 40 minutes with intermission, through August 24, 2014