Intimate Apparel

Mildred Marie Langford, Rashada Dawan and Yao Dogbe in Northlight Theatre's "Intimate Apparel." 

Longing, love, loss and loneliness merge in “Intimate Apparel,” two-time Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner (for “Ruined” and “Sweat”) Lynn Nottage's lovely 2003 drama about a talented Black seamstress making a life for herself in Lower Manhattan in 1905. 

Inspired by a photo of her great-grandmother, who was a seamstress, Nottage created 35-year-old Esther Mills (Mildred Marie Langford), who has been living in Mrs. Dickson's (Felicia P. Fields) boarding house for women for 18 years. Her specialty is making beautiful undergarments for everyone from socialites to street walkers, and costume designer Raquel Adorno brings them to life in intricately embroidered silk and satin corsets plus a Japanese silk smoking jacket that's crucial to the plot. 

As we hear about younger women marrying and moving out of the boarding house, we see Esther living her daily life. She visits her rich client Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), who is trying to hold on to her husband, for a fitting, and brings her prostitute friend Mayme (Rashada Dawan) a corset just like those she makes for society ladies. She sews the money she earns into the patchwork quilt on her bed, hoping one day to open a beauty parlor for Black women.

The most delicate scenes are with Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato), the Orthodox Jewish dry-goods merchant who shares her love of fine fabrics and saves the most exquisite for her, obviously relishing her visits. Though there can never be anything except friendship between them, the actors make us wish otherwise.

Esther's desire for love finds fruition from another quarter when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Yao Dogbe, replaced May 5 by Al'Jaleel McGhee), a Barbadian man working on the Panama Canal. He says a friend recommended he write to her, and their romance blossoms in letters, with Esther getting dire warnings from Mrs. Dickson and writing help from Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, enabling her to hide the fact she is illiterate. 

Like Nottage, director Tasia A. Jones takes her cue from old snapshots, framing the action with sepia-toned photographs such as one of an “unidentified Negro man and woman, 1905.” They are projected onto a large screen behind Esther's bed on Scott Penner's set, which efficiently serves as many locations but otherwise is rather dull with some no-so-period pieces. 

The acting ranges from serviceable to strong. Langford is a very sympathetic presence as she navigates  betrayal and other challenges. In truth, though, I was moved only by her encounters with Mr. Marks. 

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