All photos by Andrew Boyce
An admiring look at “Intimate Apparel” at Dorset Theatre Festival
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Esther: It was as though God kissed my hands when I first pulled the fabric through the sewing machine and held up a finished garment. I discovered all I need in these fingers.” – Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel
Gail M. Burns: When we were picking the shows we would commit to travel to see this season, this production of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage and directed by Giovanna Sardelli at the Dorset Theatre Festival was at the top of my list. DTF Artistic Director Dina Janis has a strong commitment to producing the work of female playwrights and hiring female directors, and I knew that commitment would translate into an excellent production of this popular play by a Pultizer Prize-winning playwright.
Larry Murray: In the Berkshires we know a lot about the history of the Gilded Age, but in that same era, in 1905, in Manhattan, Esther Mills, a 35-year-old African-American seamstress, is trying her best to do two things: save enough money to open a beauty parlor, and to get married before her biological clock runs out. Her story is both heartfelt and heartbreaking as director Giovanna Sadelli moves the complex story and cast of six from basic tropes into a stirring tale of everywoman that is ultimately as uplifting as it is heartbreaking.
Gail: This is a very sad play, although it escapes being a tragedy because, while Esther has been through the wringer and has a hard road ahead of her at the final curtain, she can still support herself with her skills.
Larry: The painful revelations along the way gave each of the actors a chance to shine, but it is the script, the writing of Lynn Nottage that enables Esther (Marinda Anderson) to pour out bits and pieces of her heart to her clients – the white, upper-class Mrs. Van Buren (Janie Brookshire) and the black prostitute, Mayme (Chantal Jean-Pierre) – as well as the Jewish man from whom she buys her fabrics (Charles Socarides.) The trio reciprocate with painful revelations and dreams of their own. All through the initial scenes we meet the equally lonely George (Avery Glymph) – a native of Barbados employed in the back-breaking and often deadly work of digging the Panama Canal – in short snippets of his letters to Esther, which reveal only part of his character. When he comes to New York to claim her as his bride, Glymph shifts gear and character to reveal the opportunist and liar George really is.
Gail: The central theme of this play is loneliness, and the unfair ways in which race, religion, employment, marriage, even our clothing, gets in the way of what we all need, which is love and companionship. Even stripped to their “intimate apparel” – as almost everyone is at one point in this play – they are still so encumbered by who and what they are so that they just miss making the real human contact they crave. Sardelli gets very realistic character portraits from her actors – all of whom are superb – even though the play is quite deliberately stagey.
Larry: The set for this multiple scene play was ingenious. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce clearly worked closely with Sardelli to achieve a design that helped the actors to pull off this play so effectively. Complemented with an effective lighting design by Michael Giannitti, the team created an almost seamless cinematic effect, one which made the scene changes as natural as turning the page in a novel. And oh, those costumes, the work of Sydney Maresca, I really found them to be documentary-worthy designs. But with the constant lacing of the corsets to achieve the hourglass look that was so popular at the time, I felt they also stood in for the sins of those years, the restrictive rules and suffocating prejudices that so hobbled the ability of so many people of color to an equal chance for good education, a decent job, or simply a fair hearing.
Gail: Not just people of color, but all women. We may complain today about Spanx, but they do not bruise and puncture our skin, prevent us from breathing, or cause us to miscarry our babies as corsets did. Esther is extremely lucky to have a skill considered “appropriate” for a woman that enables her not only to support herself as an independent person – rather than as a servant – but to save her money as well. That was very unusual. Upper class women – who were primarily white – did not work, and would not have been hired to do so if they had wanted or needed to. Women of color were generally “in service.” The only other profession open to women was prostitution, which was lucrative but obviously socially constricting.
Larry: The various gender roles that we meet in Intimate Apparel, especially the ones demanded of Esther by her husband George, provide both feminist and racial commentary. Mrs. Van Buren is under pressure to have children. Mayme has no hope for any other job than as a prostitute. George is desperate for a chance to make something of himself, but the new white European immigrants get all the jobs.
Gail: Intimate apparel does not ensure intimate relationships, although the fact that she sees her clients so comparatively naked (these were the days when skirts were placed on pianos so their legs wouldn’t be exposed) does lead them to believe they have a closer relationship to Esther than is actually the case. But as she finds when she marries, even the ultimate intimacy of sexual intercourse does not ensure a bond between two people.
Larry: Socarides delivered a complex portrayal of the Jewish merchant, Mr. Marks, who was so orthodox he couldn’t let a woman touch him who was not his wife or a blood relation. But Esther and he had a similar love of fabrics, and marveled over some of the handcrafted treasures he found. In those scenes I was totally at home, I knew these characters, their love of beauty and how rare, finely made treasures that are one of a kind can bring people together even a century later.
Gail: It was heartbreaking to see their scenes together because, despite their common interests and attraction, they both know that there is nowhere on the planet where a white Jew and a black Christian could live together, let alone marry, in peace and safety.
Larry: Nottage was inspired by the unidentified photos of a black couple on their wedding day, and a black seamstress at her sewing machine from the turn of the 20th century, which are projected at the ends of Act I and Act II respectively. We will never know their real stories, but Nottage wanted to write about people like that, the vast majority of us who live and long and love and work in absolute anonymity. Dorset Theatre Festival has done both them, and us, a great favor, giving us a vivid and intensely alive play that uncovers the naked truth about how difficult life can be, even today, and provided us insights into the hearts and souls of characters who should never be forgotten.
Dorset Theatre Festival presents Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. Director – Giovanna Sardelli; Costume Design – Sydney Maresca; Set Design – Andrew Boyce; Lighting Design – Michael Gianitti; Sound Design – Ryan Rumery; Production Stage Manager – Joanna Obuzor.
Cast: Mrs. Dickson – Elain Graham, Esther – Marinda Anderson, George – Avery Glymph, Mrs. Van Buren – Janie Brookshire; Mr. Marks – Charles Socarides, Mayme – Chantal jean-Perre. Two and a half hours with no intermission. June 25 – July 5, 2015 at the Dorset Theatre Festival, Dorset, VT. DorsetTheatreFestival.org (802) 867-2223.