By Bill Hirschman
Lynn Nottage’s incisive Intimate Apparel explores a dozen themes simultaneously: nascent feminism, pride, class, personal betrayals, ambition, the post-Civil War exodus to the north, sex inside a marriage and as a commercial entity, varied relationships, sisterhood — and all of it viewed through the prism of race at the turn of the century and its persisting repercussions in the present day.
But this Palm Beach Dramaworks edition finds a commonality among all of the above: Dreams — the pursuit of dreams, the price of dreams, the fulfillment of dreams, the hope and fear and frustration connected to dreams deferred and dreams realized.
Virtually every one of the six characters is pursuing or shying away from a seductive dream. It might be a lasting deep loving relationship. It might be the American Dream of success that arrivals found much tougher when the streets did not turn out to be paved with gold. It might be breaking through the rigid mores of race, sex, sexuality and class.
Some here are chasing dreams of a new future or a second chance; some have watched their dreams once caught, then deteriorate or not manifest themselves as they had hoped. Some dreams are blocked by prejudice or fear.
And under it all, despite the unhealed and soul-crippling wounds of earlier forays, the dream of lasting self-respect.
In perfect sync with Nottage’s thought-provoking and emotion-stirring script, director Be Boyd molds a superb cast led by the incomparable Rita Cole in a career best of a storied gallery of previous characterizations.
Set in ragtime-infused 1905 Manhattan, the heroine is Esther, a 35-year-old plain-faced emigre from the South. She has spent 18 years developing a talent for creating ornate elegant underclothes – corsets to camisoles – for a clientele ranging from high toned Black prostitutes to white grande dames depicted in television’s The Gilded Age.
As created by Boyd and Cole, Esther exudes a different constructed persona to each of the people in her orbit: her protective landlady Mrs. Dickson (Gabrielle Lee); her upper crust client Mrs. Van Buren (Gracie Winchester); her fabric supplier, the Jewish Mr. Marks (Jordan Sobel); her buddy, the lady of the evening Mayme (Krystal Mosley), and a suitor George (Jovan Jacobs).
But underneath, as suspicious as Esther might be of anything good being possible, she is deeply lonely, secretly hoping but deeply pessimistic that she will ever be loved. That Cole can inhabit all these affects and switch among them easily – and can reveal even more miens during conversations with these people – is stunning.
Her life-chastened outlook begins to melt when she starts getting letters from a ditch digger working on the Panama Canal and who has obtained Esther’s name from a friend. As we listen, George reads aloud his letters to Esther. They describe a genial, kind-hearted hard-working man, also lonely, who dreams of a better life. Nottage instills George’s letters with a lyrical, almost poetic way with words as he describes the perilous work deep in a lush jungle.
After six months, he proposes in a letter. Esther, yearning her entire life for such a relationship, accepts and awaits his arrival in New York. Esther who often maintains a cautious exterior, increasingly gives way to a gladness suffusing her face.
To avoid spoilers, simply say that nothing in Esther’s life has ever been straightforward or without a costly lesson.
None of these people are naïve. Each has been scoured and scarred by life. Each submerges their dreams to various depths. But they persist. Esther wants to apply her hard-earned savings to create a beauty parlor. George says as he hunts for a job, “I want to build things, not polish silver or port luggage.” And each one of the six is lonely in their own way.
Nottage gifts these “common folk” with monologues that are credibly coming from their mouths, but are laced with gloriously lovely imagery that borders on prose operatic arias.
Unless you’re a theater artist, you likely won’t notice nor appreciate Boyd’s skill laced throughout every aspect of this evening. Sometimes it’s simply physicalizing character such as the grace when Esther and Mr. Marks lift a bolt of fabric as if it were solid gold, stroking it with appreciation.
The production – not the script – does runs a bit long but it is Boyd’s decision to tell the story with a pace that takes the time to let emotions and truths bubble up.
Again, over a decade, Rita Cole has become one of the outstanding actresses in our region. Just this year, she was the photographer documenting racial tragedies in GableStage’s The White Card (which she left early to take on this role.)
But here, she has to deliver a wide range of Esthers depending on who she is dealing with: proud and humble, confident and antsy, courageous and skittish, vulnerable and aggressive. And you buy all of it.
She has a fine collection of colleagues to work with, every one of whom has monologues exposing their inner lives in Nottage’s wonderful language. Mosley creates the practical courtesan who is using those using her; Sobel is the stranger in a strange land who clearly is attracted to Esther and she to him but both knowing they can do nothing about it; Winchester makes it believable that common concerns make the two women separated by class can bond in a totally conscious pairing of sisterhood.
Lee deserves special praise for her boarding house owner who has had a complex, painful past and tries to protect Esther in a series of revelatory monologues.
And Jacobs, who has grown season after season, can do comedy and fantasy, can be Hansberry’s Walter Lee or Wilson’s Cory Maxson. But here, too, he gives an indelible performance as the troubled complex working man with flashing eyes whose decency is eroded by the frustration of the aforementioned dream deferred. His recitations of George’s letter have a musical lilt from the character’s origin in Barbados.
We have praised scenic designer Michael Amico for decades now for creating dense environments that evoke specific periods and emotions. This is no different, with wood-paneling, draperies and a bafflingly perfect selection of period furniture down to the sewing machine and props down to the rooms’ accoutrements (remember the bric-a-brac in his Beauty Queen of Leenane) .
The entire scene gains an added dimension from Kirk Bookman’s lighting that echoes the interior moods of the characters.
And, of course, resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe gets to employ every shred of his considerable and much-honored craft from Esther’s dowdy coat to Mrs. Van Buren’s expensive afternoon wear to Mr. Marks’ classic Orthodox Jewish garb to George’s evolving attire. Ruffles, lace, high-collars, a kaleidoscope of fabric colors and textures.
Nottage is one of the most produced contemporary playwrights and this has become one of the most produced plays in the country since bowing in 2003, including GableStage in 2006. Her terrific play Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine was mounted in 2006 by the now defunct Public Theatre of South Florida. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009 for her play Ruined (done at GableStage in 2012), and in 2017 for her play Sweat. The MacArthur Genius grant recipient was the first (and remains the only) woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. This play was turned into an opera with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon and a libretto by Nottage that ran this winter at Lincoln Center and will be televised on PBS in the future. She also wrote the script for the new Broadway musical about Michael Jackson, MJ the Musical.
South Florida is lucky to have her work back on our stages.
Intimate Apparel runs through April 17 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. Running time approximately 2 hours 20 minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Call (561) 514-4042, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.