The inspiration for Lynn Nottage’s 2003 Intimate Apparel was discovering a faded photo of her great-grandmother.
The Pulitzer-winning American playwright already knew a smidgen about this relative, a seamstress who journeyed to New York City in the early 1900s. Intrigued by the photograph, Nottage relied on research, family stories and her own imagination to create Intimate Apparel, a remarkably well-drawn drama now playing the Belfry Theatre.
The drama examines the life of a working-class Black American woman, Esther, who against daunting odds manages not only to survive but retain her dignity, grace and humanity. Sensitively directed by Nigel Shawn Williams, this satisfying production impresses with the subtlety and depth of its characters, each as well-crafted and multi-layered as the garments the protagonist sews to earn her living.
Esther (Jenny Brizard) plies her trade in a New York rooming house. Having reached her mid-thirties, she resents the fact she creates fancy corsets for the wedding nights of other tenants while she remains a spinster. Yearning for romance and the respectability of marriage, Esther enters into a pen-pal romance with George (Matthew G. Brown), a West Indian labourer toiling on the Panama Canal.
The pair — who barely know one another despite a long correspondence — get married. Immediately the relationship turns rocky. George struggles to find work in New York, partly because he’s Black, partly because he’s picky. He turns to boozing and brothels, meanwhile spurning Esther because she’s physically plain (something we’re given to understand despite Brizard’s own attractiveness).
Then there’s Esther’s friends, all with their own crosses to bear. Mrs. Van Buren (played by the promising young actor Melissa Taylor) is a high-society customer mired in a loveless marriage who finds Esther attractive in more ways than one. Mrs. Dickson (Lucinda Davis) is the heart-of-gold buddy (thankfully portrayed without sentimentality) whose late husband, an opium fiend, left her the rooming house. And there’s Mayme (Amira Anderson), a hard-drinking prostitute/singer-pianist who’s a good person despite one act of devastating — and perhaps unintended — treachery.
The most interesting relationship is between Esther and Mr. Marks (Matthew Gorman), an orthodox Jew who owns the fabric store where she purchases supplies. The unstated love that simmers between the two (Nottage conveys it brilliantly via their sensual admiration of fine silks and satins) is Victorian in its decorousness. On Thursday night this interplay was conveyed with admirable restraint by Brizard and especially Gorman, who imbued his role with gentleness and delicacy.
Another powerful scene has Esther tearing open a bed quilt in which she’s hidden a small fortune painstakingly saved to finance her own beauty salon. Brizard might have been ripping apart her own heart as she pulled open the duvet and tossed the bills to her husband.
Not everything worked perfectly. For example, when Esther learns her husband has been availing himself of Mayme’s sexual services, Brizard’s reaction seemed deadpan to the point of semi-interestedness.
With its brothels, drugs, sex, requited love and betrayal, Intimate Apparel could easily have lapsed into an over-the-top pot-boiler. The playwright cannily avoids this, opting for depth over sensationalism. In one scene George pounds on Mayme’s door, unaware his wife is also on the other side. An angry confrontation would make for hammer-fisted (albeit superficially satisfying) melodrama. Nottage doesn’t allow us the sugary thrill of such an entrance. Instead the sequence fades with a crescendo of kettle-drum banging, reflecting Esther’s emotional devastation in a manner that’s more potent and poetic.
This is a show with a unified artistic vision. There’s the understated grace of designer Denyse Karm’s backdrop, depicting the exterior of a New York tenement building, which resembles a line drawing from a children’s book. The lighting is low and gentle. Everything conspires to pull us powerfully into a world from another place and time — surely the mark of superior theatre.
Intimate Apparel continues at the Belfry Theatre to Oct. 16.