For many years fine women’s undergarments, meticulously crafted in lace-trimmed silk and satin, intended for exclusive view when worn, if ever seen by male gaze, were referred to as “delicates”, too private for common or graphic description. The creation of such “delicates” weaves the dramatic plotline of Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play, INTIMATE APPAREL, set in bustling, multi-cultural and ethnic melting pot 1905 New York City. An homage to Nottage’s great-grandmother, the play won Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Lortel and Obie Awards and nominations. Major wins included the script (2004 Steinberg New Play Award by the American Theatre Critics Association) plus multiple acting awards for its Off-Broadway lead Viola Davis. INTIMATE APPAREL has received outstanding reception at distinguished playhouses across the US since. It is considered Nottage’s best known work. This critic believes the current production at Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas (www.MainstageIrving.com), running through March 25, 2023, is its first in this region.
Written in a vivid yet demure, episodic style reflective of late 19th century drama, the play unfolds as a slice of life depiction of the determined ambitions of a talented African-American seamstress/entrepreneur and the people who fill her creative world from wealthy boudoirs to red light district cribs. She finds herself lured into a scam marriage to an opportunistic immigrant but rises above the heartbreak and financial disaster he causes to pursue her worthy aspirations. A powerful proto-feminist current flows throughout the production with full-fleshed out, eminently human women characters speaking truths, while sepia-toned daguerreotype-inspired photo stills project high on the Dupree Theater upstage wall, lending a silent movie era ambience to the unfolding narrative. Like a properly mixed Old-Fashioned cocktail, the diverse humanity of the women characters driving the play’s action lends an effervescent warmth in contrast to the sharp bite of the husband’s betrayal and the formal distancing of the observant Jewish haberdasher unable, or unwilling due to custom, to act on his obvious attraction to the talented seamstress who frequents his shop. Nottage’s play reminds its audience that it doesn’t need to shout or rely on fast-paced gimmickry to enthrall the audience.
Regional outstanding Equity actor Stormi Demerson plays Esther, the talented seamstress, with accessible flair, natural determination, loving spirit and feminist grit that evokes hints of Rosa Parks and Michelle Obama, if they had existed in 1905, without turning the character into stereotype. Understudy Shaundra Norwood and Lindsay Hayward create intriguing empathetic portraits of the prostitute and the socialite Esther creates corsets for, both caught in the web of 1905 male dominance, leaning hard on Esther’s talent to support their survival. Yolanda Davis rounds out the female foursome, Esther’s caring boarding house matron and closest confidante, Mrs. Dickson. The character’s life wisdom and common-sense perspectives ground the play and reveal how women have often supported each other in times of trial. Brenton Jackson as scoundrel betraying husband and Blair Mitchell as the straightlaced Jewish haberdasher symbolize the unequal power structure the women must deal with to stay alive, but thanks to Nottage’s dynamic script both actors can find emotional depth in their characters that goes beyond caricature. A balanced cast, they work well together as a smooth and lively ensemble.
Dennis Raveneau directs his cast with a respectful “delicacy” and deft hand, reflecting a key symbolic element of the script. He never lets the performance descend into soap opera mawkishness. He allows his actors freedom to explore emotional arcs but keeps the interplay taut and engaging, scene to scene. The script’s episodic style and 1905 ambience never drags, as it could with a less aware director. The human issues engaged and relationships portrayed please the ear, eye and mind of a contemporary audience while charming them with clearly-defined “period” style visuals. Multi-level scenic design by Ellen Doyle Mizener with set dressing by Joseph Cummings and richly detailed costumes by Michael A. Robinson, along with the splendidly intermittent rear wall projections, take the audience into a believable and intriguing 1905 reality. This Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas production does real justice to Lynn Nottage’s unique play honoring her great grandmother. “It isn’t often that something so fine and delicate enters the store,” says the haberdasher Mr. Marks, referring to a special bolt of cloth and inferring his unspoken feelings for seamstress Esther. It’s a pleasure to experience a play and production “so fine and delicate.”