The heart is a lonely hunter in finely stitched “Intimate Apparel”
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When: Through Aug. 24
Where: Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Info: (773) 935-6875; http://www.eclipsetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Eclipse Theatre began its 2014 season, which is devoted entirely to the work of Brooklyn-bred playwright Lynn Nottage, with a mightily impressive production of “Ruined,” her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner about the victimization of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil wars. Now, under the direction of Steve Scott, the company has staged a beautifully fine-tuned revival of her heart-piercing 2003 play, “Intimate Apparel,” which, in a sense, offers a very different view of female oppression and survival.
Set in New York City in 1905, Nottage’s story spins around the fate of Esther Mills (Kelly Owens), a 35-year-old African-American spinster who has spent the 17 years since she arrived from the South living in a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Frances Wilkerson), and laboring as a gifted seamstress who designs and sews elaborate corsets and other “intimate apparel” for both her friend, the prostitute and ragtime pianist, Mayme (Ebony Joy), and wealthy white women, including the unhappily married Mrs. Van Buren (Skye Shrum).
Esther has squirreled away significant savings, hellbent on assuring her independence and bankrolling her dream of opening a luxury beauty salon. But as she approaches an age when her prospects for marriage seem slight, and her prim but dignified veneer keep men at a distance, a certain loneliness begins to creep. So she reluctantly agrees to engage in a epistolic relationship with George Armstrong (Brandon Greenhouse), a laborer from Barbados engaged in grueling work on the Panama Canal.
Though skilled, Esther is illiterate, so she turns to Mrs. Van Buren for help in penning the letters, and before long Mr. Armstrong proposes and turns up on her doorstep. He is handsome, to be sure, but he quickly makes it clear that he finds Esther far from what he expected. Nevertheless, they marry. And despite her best judgment, Esther lets her heart overwhelm her well-practiced caution, and permits herself to be badly used by a man who is both full of anger about racial discrimination and a pure soundrel.
As it happens, the most delicate and “intimate” relationship Esther has is with Mr. Marks (Eustace Allen), the Orthodox Jewish textile merchant with whom she does business, and with whom she shares a love of fabrics, as well as a sense of deep loneliness and isolation. But that cultural crossover is a bridge too far.
The cast is uniformly splendid, but it is Owens, who left a lasting impression for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes in The Artistic Home’s production of “Night of the Iguana” last year, who is especially noteworthy for the way she disguises her genuine beauty, and balances Esther’s pride with her complete vulnerability.
Kevin Hagan’s handsome set, complete with vintage Singer sewing machine and richly carved upright piano, along with Rachel Lambert’s vintage costumes (and sensational corset design), add to the production’s allure. So do the two projected black-and-white photos of “unidentified” African-Americans of the period — one of a single woman, another of a man and woman standing at a formal distance from each other — that clearly triggered Nottage’s imagination.
Note: A reading of Nottage’s fascinating play, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” is set for Aug. 2. And the season will conclude with the rarely produced “Mud, River, Stone” (Nov. 6-Dec. 14), about an African-American couple vacationing in Africa. Meanwhile, Nottage is working on a Broadway production — a new musical version of the fabled film, “Black Orpheus.”