Intimate Apparel


The time is 1905. The place is New York’s Lower East Side. And at the play’s center is Esther (in a deeply affecting, wholly believable performance by Aneisa J. Hicks). A 35-year-old African American woman who was penniless when she moved to New York from the South at the age of 17. She is a gifted seamstress, and has been scrimping and saving all her life while fashioning elaborate corsets for a wide range of women — from Mrs. Van Buren (a fine turn by Adelin Phelps), the wealthy socialite locked in an unhappy marriage, to Mayme (a nightclub pianist who makes her living as a well-known prostitute, and is zestily played by Trezure B Coles). And both these women clearly feel safe when confiding in her.

The arrival of gentlemanly, quite poetic letters from George (expertly played by Curtis Bannister) that are an attempt to make romantic inroads with Esther.

George is a Barbados-born laborer doing dangerous grunt work on the Panama Canal that is being built at the time. An ambitious man (and, like Esther, illiterate), he has hired someone to pen these letters. After quite a bit of romantic persistence he arrives in New York, marries the inhibited Esther, and soon reveals his true self as he strays from the bedroom and pressures Esther to give him all her years of savings — money she had planned to use for establishing her own salon. A sad element of the story but quite poignant as all of her dreams were washed away due to the unethical character of this man and societal pressure to marry and not pursue career dreams.

But there is more, and it is at the true emotional core of Nottage’s play. For the real love story here is between Esther and Mr. Marks (ideally played by the ever subtle but winning Sasha Andreev- I sat next to his brother at the performance). An Orthodox Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, he owns the fabric store where Esther shops for the fine textiles used in her creations, and he is as shy and gentle in his way as Esther. These two people are an ideal match in many ways, although their union can never be realized. Yet their emotional connection is ideally embodied in a brief but unforgettable moment when she smooths the lush collar of a robe she has made and has him try it on.

Throughout, Nottage explores the notion of intimacy in a multitude of ways, suggesting how different social classes can connect, confide in, and also betray each other. Overall, a play as meticulously crafted as Esther’s creations.

And that fabric though! The impeccable descriptions of the lineage as well as how these garments were created makes you pine for another era where fine fabric could be found and fast fashion would not exist for decades to come.

Theater productions at the Asolo Rep are the finest performances in the region. If you love any type of theater, it is a must see. You will never be disappointed.