by Roseann Cane
As noted by director Daniela Varon, Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel takes place in 1905, the same year that Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth. Both works are richly detailed, insightful studies of women, men, and class distinctions in and around New York at the turn of the last century, but while Wharton’s novel examined the more “visible” world of white society, Nottage explores a world that is far less familiar to most of us: that of the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the African-Americans.
Esther (Nehassaiu deGannes), an unmarried 35-year-old African-American seamstress, creates lingerie from the elegant fabrics she buys from a pious Jewish Romanian immigrant, Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider). Two of Esther’s clients, Mrs. Van Buren (Christianna Nelson) and Mayme (Medina Senghore) seemingly live on opposite ends of the social spectrum, the former a white woman who has married into a rich New York family; the latter, an African-American bordello worker.
Esther’s landlady, Mrs. Dickson (MaConnia Chesser), cautions her when Esther enters an epistolary romance with a laborer on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong (Lee Edward Colston II). Mrs. Dickson describes the personal compromises she chose to make when she married a man with money. The now-widowed Mrs. Dickson advises Esther to guard her heart, but Esther is lonely, and eagerly accepts the marriage proposal from the man who writes so lovingly.
Nottage has written a play that is at once well-crafted and deeply felt, and director Varon and her cast do it proud. deGannes offers a performance so nuanced and moving that the audience gasped loudly several times out of fear and concern for Esther. As the no-nonsense, kind landlady, Chesser has a lovely presence and command of her role. Mayme, the prostitute who happens to be a gifted pianist, is expertly embodied by the beautiful Senghore, and as the unhappy socialite, Nelson does a splendid job revealing her despondence at her own disenfranchisement.
The two men in the cast are strikingly good. Schrider’s palpably gentle soul, and the unrealized connection between his and deGannes’s characters, are deeply poignant.
I loved that we first see Colston behind a scrim, as he recites his letters to Esther. The gauziness enhances the separation and mystery between George and Esther. George is from Barbados, and in the first act I found Colston’s accent a bit over-enunciated so that it didn’t sound natural. But by the second act, his accent seemed pitch-perfect. (I initially had a similar problem with deGannes’s North Carolina twang; for a small portion of the play, she seemed to stray from the accent, but in short order, her accent became authentic.)
The scene changes are nicely choreographed by Varon, with actors and a few costumed stagehands whisking props away and moving furniture as we hear well-chosen ragtime music. The first act seemed very long, and I’m still uncertain exactly why. I suspect that as the run progresses, dialogue and set changes will speed up, and that problem will resolve itself. Sandra Goldmark’s set is as attractive as it is practical, with a series of lovely, colorful drapes serving as a backdrop. It’s fun to watch the wheeled furniture transform from scene to scene, with one constant: the bed, though seen at different angles, is always in full view as Nottage intended, a vivid reminder of each character’s experience of intimacy.
Molly Trainer’s costumes are winning and so appealing. I must admit, however, that I found Nelson’s unnatural-looking blonde wig a distraction. Christopher Peifer’s sound design, Scott Killian’s compositions, and James W. Bilnoski’s lighting design enhanced the play seamlessly.
Intimate Apparel is an important, distinctive American play, and I have little doubt that Shakespeare & Company’s production will get the audience it richly deserves. On opening night, I learned that the entire first weekend was sold out, so I would urge you to make reservations posthaste if you want to see this fine show.
Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, directed by Daniela Varon, runs July 20-August 13, 2017 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare and Company campus, 70 Kemble Street n Lenox, MA. Set designer Sandra Goldmark; lighting designer James W. Bilnoski; costume designer Molly Trainer; sound designer Christopher Peifer; projections designer Natalie Johnsonius Neubert; stage manager Tori Sheehan; composer/music director Scott Killian. CAST: MaConnia Chesser as Mrs. Dickson;Lee Edward Colston II as George; Nehassaiu deGannes as Esther; Christianna Nelson as Mrs. Van Buren;Tommy Schrider as Mr. Marks; and Medina Senghore as Mayme. Tickets for Intimate Apparel are available online at shakespeare.org, or by calling Shakespeare & Company’s box office at (413) 637-3353