secrets: (l-r) Gary, Hogue and Perry in Intimate Apparel.
Fabric of Love
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 Match.com.
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