Trinity’s ‘Intimate Apparel’ a discreetly revealing character-driven drama

Resident acting company members Angela Brazil as Mrs.Van Buren and Mia Ellis as Esther in "Intimate Apparel," by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.

Resident acting company members Angela Brazil as Mrs.Van Buren and Mia Ellis as Esther in "Intimate Apparel," by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.

Resident acting company members Angela Brazil as Mrs.Van Buren and Mia Ellis as Esther in “Intimate Apparel,” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.

The place and the time is the New York City of 1905 and as we observe this scene in the downstairs theatre at Trinity Rep what we see is a collage of small set pieces, interior views of the domiciles the denizens of the era reside in, ranging from rooming to town house. The wide array of colors that meet our eye contrast, both vibrant and muted, rather like the characters we shall meet here and very much like the quilt Esther has spent her life making and has sewn her life savings into.
This is the world of the play “Intimate Apparel” and it is, as the title suggests, a delicately woven piece (though thankfully not at all flimsy) but one designed to get gently under your skin rather than be worn over it. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage employs lush language that is full of poetic imagery to spin her yarn that pays full attention to all the little details of a life filled with longing.
Though all the characters that we meet desperately desire something else out of their lives and these deep needs of theirs often serve cross and double-crossed purposes of the others onstage, “what you got she wants and what she got you want,” as one character puts it, this is primarily the story of Esther and her lifetime of dogged and deferred determination.
Esther is a seamstress and, at 35, fears to be forever a spinster. She has eked out living making corsets and petticoats — a trade that weaves her connections ranging from high society client Mrs. Van Buren, prostitute confidante Mayme, and Jewish fabric purveyor Mr. Marks. But what looms large on her horizon is her correspondence with George, a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal who dreams of coming to New York and, like her, of marriage. How these dreams reach fruition and what fulfillment may come forms the basis of the tale.
“Intimate Apparel,” rather like its protagonist Esther, employs exceeding patience to achieve its ends; time and care is taken to allow the cumulative elements of this narrative to build slowly and inexorably. The weight of a life spent waiting is given full due, this requires some patience from the audience as the events depicted here are not rushed into but the end result is well worth it. The story slowly draws you in though the characters, and events depicted are poetically interesting before they become, as they eventually do, dramatically interesting. This is what a great play and production can achieve for us, the ability to slowly but surely wade into the circumstances, not only of a time and place, but of an entire life.
To this considerable end Janice Duclos directs these proceedings with great care. Attention is given to the nuance of the moment as well as the great arc of events and the director is adept, as she steadily ravels the threads of this tale, at keeping our attention taut. There is an inherent tension under the surface of the restive stillness of these lives that the director evokes well and builds up to an inevitable conclusion. We are, as the author intended, always aware of the interior lives of these disparate characters assembled onstage.
The complexities of these lives have been given full measure by the Trinity Rep Acting Company. Mia Ellis is a marvel as Esther; there is a sort of quiet courage that imbues every aspect of her persona onstage. Her wants and needs seem to bubble up from a deep, still wellspring inside her, tempered always by a sense of dignified determination. The actress is not ‘plain’, as the text suggests, but her eyes and self-regard seemingly belie this truth; her watchful and wary countenance onstage suggest a permanently fractured spirit beneath her façade. Hers is a very measured and moving performance.
Subtleties of the self also inform Joe Wilson Jr.’s performance as George, her long-distance lover. There is a unfulfilled ferocity to his ends onstage, an inherent frustration of his deep desires that run the emotional gamut from being justly aggrieved to petty petulance. Within his mild manner there seems to be a coiled spring of dangerousness that the slightest feather touch might trigger.
Mauro Hantmann is a sheer delight as fabric salesman Mr. Marks, he is simply seems such a decent and charming man that in watching the scenes between him and Esther your heart cannot help but root for them and wish for a better time and place for a Jewish immigrant and a black seamstress to have a long, happy life together.
Barbara Meek is, as always, a formidable yet benign presence as rooming house landlady Mrs. Dickson.
As socialite Ms. Van Buren Angela Brazil conveys a sense of weighed down flightiness; one who would be frivolous if it were not for her stymied desires.
Shelley Fort provides an essential earthiness and absolute honesty as prostitute Mayme.
To he able to start with such a strong story is a gift for Director Janice Duclos and she guides this carefully-crafted show with a sure hand, gently but firmly driving these characters and their concerns onward. That great care has been taken with this play that contains such a subtle force extends to the scenic design of Patrick Lynch, where the finished woodwork molding on the interior of these rooms, a cluttered assembly of habitation not unlike a quilt, resembles the lace work embroidery of the petticoats and corsets that Esther fashions.
Somewhat later in the same century and city depicted here the poet Langston Hughes will write of deferred dreams, a quality here that playwright Lynn Nottage gives considerable substance to. All onstage in “Intimate Apparel” are lonesome souls, their dreams are deep but rarely dark, most long only for a gentle touch. As we in the audience bear witness to these vivid and quiet lives, their dreams, much like Esther herself, endure.
“Intimate Apparel” at Trinity Rep, now through March 2. See listings for details.

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