Lives lost to history — flattened into anonymous, discarded black-and-white photos — are resurrected and infused with fresh color and feeling in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.” Set in Manhattan in 1905, this thoughtful, affecting new play, directed with seamless elegance by Daniel Sullivan, focuses on a black seamstress who specializes in luxurious underthings for ladies — and ladies of the evening — who can afford them.
Viola Davis, ever superb, plays the central character, Esther, whose skilled hands give her entree into bedrooms both uptown and downtown. She enters into a series of surprising, and surprisingly intimate, relationships: with a ritzy social lioness, a weary prostitute, a Jewish merchant.
Almost imperceptibly, through the friendly give and take of business relationships conducted in the cozy atmosphere of the bedroom, Esther comes to fill the role of confidante and cherished friend to these clients and acquaintances. They are, in their separate fashions (literally and figuratively), as lonely as she is. All share Esther’s sense of isolation, which continually laps at her heels like her petticoats, even after she lands herself a man.
Esther has boarded at Mrs. Dickson’s rooming house ever since she moved to Manhattan from the South at 17. She’s now 35 and tired of watching the prettier girls move out year after year, emerging like butterflies into the wider world of marriage, family and church socials, while she is left to the cold embrace of her sewing machine. Naive, still hopeful, and played by Davis with a persuasive mixture of childlike awkwardness and womanly warmth, Esther shyly begins a correspondence with a laborer working in Panama.
Meantime, she finds what companionship she can among her unusually assorted circle of acquaintances, who help out with penmanship, too. Since Esther can’t read or write, she relies on others to conduct her long-distance romance.
Uptown, she visits the plush boudoir of Mrs. Van Buren (Arija Bareikis), who moves freely in the chilly climes of the city’s highest social circles but can share her insecurities only with Esther. The intricate lingerie and corsets Esther sews for her are Van Buren’s silent, sartorial plea to keep her husband from straying.
Van Buren, who gently encourages Esther’s romance and even gets a small thrill from her part in the courtship, also enjoys the taste of the exotic life she derives from knowing that Esther creates similar underclothes for another client, saloon singer and prostitute Mayme (Lauren Velez). Mayme is no less happy with the feminine companionship — she’s worn out by men and by life. She takes a more cynical attitude to Esther’s pen pal — “It’s sweet he write to you, but, my dear, it ain’t real,” she warns.
Esther’s only real contact with a man, in fact, is her businesslike but increasingly warm relationship with Mr. Marks (Corey Stoll), a Jewish fabric merchant who shares her appreciation of beautiful silks and satins. And this isn’t all they have in common: Marks, too, must look far afield — and into an uncertain future — for his hopes of domestic happiness. An Orthodox Jew, he’s been betrothed for many years to a girl he’s never met; she lives in Romania.
Derek McLane’s austere set quietly accentuates the empty nature of Esther’s life outside the cozy warmth of her boudoir friendships. Beds — luxurious or Spartan — dominate the decor, ironically underscoring Esther’s painful ignorance of their more pleasurable purposes. When her husband-to-be, George Armstrong (Russell Hornsby), finally arrives in New York, their wedding night is an awkward misfire.
In the play’s second act, Nottage somewhat overplays her hand, pushing the relationships among the characters into dramatic territory that sometimes feels schematic and artificial. And at times the playwright’s highly developed language sacrifices a little authenticity for articulation. But Sullivan’s fine cast keeps the quiet pulse of feeling on course even in the few dramatically strained passages. Not incidentally, they all sport Catherine Zuber’s outstanding costumes with authority — the hourglass corsets worn by Van Buren and Mayme, the severe black wool that defines Marks as an observant Jew, the exquisite silk dressing gown that proves to be a painfully inappropriate gift for Esther’s new husband.
All the characters are defined by — and constricted by — the clothes they wear. The play offers poignant commentary on an era when the cut and color of one’s dress — and, of course, skin — determined whom one could and could not marry, sleep with, even talk to in public. Esther’s artistry gives her the wherewithal to forge her own destiny, in one sense. But she cannot stitch her way out of the cultural climate she’s born into. As Esther returns reluctantly to the company of her sewing machine in the play’s moving final moments, she might as well be sitting down to make her own lonely shroud.