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Sharing secrets: (l-r) Gary, Hogue and Perry in Intimate Apparel.

The Fabric of Love

By James Yeara

Intimate Apparel

By Lynn Nottage, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 14

Shakespeare’s Othello has been called “the play about a handkerchief,” a specially crafted intimate article of clothing for Elizabethan women. That play about love, power, and culture twists on the handling of Desdemona’s handkerchief as it moves from character to character. Lynn Nottage’s award- winning Intimate Ap parel follows the twisting movements of similarly personal foundation garments as the play unfolds its tale about love, power and culture. While the strawberry needlepoint of Desdemona’s hanky creates more havoc and reveals more of love’s nature and power’s usage, the blue corset at the core of Nottage’s play shows the stakes for the various characters in this finely crafted domestic history.

Set in New York City during 1905, Intimate Apparel tells the tale of Esther Mills (Rochelle Hogue), a 35-year-old seamstress eking out a living making the titled garments for Fifth Avenue socialites like Mrs. Van Buren (Yvonne Perry) and Tenderloin district prostitutes like Mayme (Tanesha Gary). Residing in the boarding house of Mrs. Dickson (Venida Evans), a matron who knows it all (having seen it all) and who encourages Esther to open her eyes before she’s too old, Intimate Apparel unfolds as Esther travels between her sheltered room and her clients’ boudoirs. These bedrooms are on opposite ends not only of the socioeconomic spectrum but, paradoxically, also of the spectrum of sexual satisfaction: The desperate Mrs. Van Buren shows that having money can’t buy even sybaritic love, while Mayme shows money can buy lots of it.

In between these different levels of female wealth and poverty, discomfort and comfort, is the way station of Mr. Marks’ (Gregor Wynnyczuk) fabric shop, where the sensitive Jewish merchant presents another forbidden love to Esther, as well as the raw material to turn into intimate apparel. Presenting further complications is Esther’s unsought love, George Armstrong (Maduka Steady), a Barbados laborer working on the digging of the Panama Canal, who writes letters to her in sort of an early version of

As with Capital Rep’s opening production last season, Syncopation, the history of the era informs the play, but it’s the dynamics among the characters that engage. A benchmark of director Mancinelli-Cahill’s style is the strength of actresses’ performances. The women are present in their scenes, engaged, intimate, not merely reciting lines in wavering accents. Evans’ Mrs. Dickson is a force that should be listened to. The scenes between Esther and Mrs. Van Buren and Esther and Mayme provide passion and betrayal as the three women, each in turn, wear the electric blue corset with its sparkling, dangling decorations highlighting the bosom that supposedly enflames male desire. Esther’s scenes between Perry’s Mrs. Van Buren, with her believable Southern-belle accent and frustrated desire, and Gary’s Mayme, with her earthy eroticism and throaty singing voice, give Intimate Apparel a quickening pulse. There’s a marvelous moment when Gary’s Mayme stands stunned, taking in the multiple levels of her betrayal and loss, staring off downstage left, the light slanting on her from upstage. Such glimpses of the female heart create an intimacy with the audience that shouldn’t be missed.


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