Tuesday, February 24, 2009

One-hundred years ago, the phrase “intimate apparel” denoted the corset, often hand sewn and treated as one of the most cherished pieces of clothing in a woman’s wardrobe. Worn by both fashionable society women and dance hall girls, they slimmed the waist, accentuated the bust, and pleased the eye. In the Player’s Club of Swarthmore’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, it’s the maker of the garment and the dreams she stitches together for herself and others that shape this sad, touching drama of women’s lives.

Nottage’s play opens on Ester (Erin Stewart), an unmarried seamstress living in a respectable boardinghouse in Manhattan. During a party to celebrate another girl’s engagement, she works the hand-wheel of a sewing machine to stitch together the wedding dress. Thirty-five and plain, she hates the happiness of young girls while disdaining the suitors proffered by her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Deborah E. Randall), snidely asking of a bellhop at a fancy hotel “is high class luggage any easier to carry?” She fancies and flirts with the Hasidic Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks (Edward Milliner), but despite his reciprocated feelings, his religion forbids him to even touch her.

In between bouts of advice to settle, Dickson presents a letter sent from George (Eric Lamback), a Barbadian worker on the Panama Canal who knows Ester remotely through someone at her church. He laments the dredging that transforms a “place of beauty into a morgue,” and longs for someone to make the long days of work bearable. Unsurprisingly, Ester leaps at the one opportunity for romance that her appearance and proud nature had previously denied her.

The only problem? She can’t read, and must rely on her two clients—the society woman Mrs. Van Buren (capably played by Shelli Pentimall) and the courtesan Mayme (Anjoli Santiago)—to read the letters and write replies. Despite their own problems (Van Buren’s husband spits at her because she’s barren, and Mayme fends off abusive clients), both women eagerly indulge the fantasy of reinventing Ester in letters and romantically imagining this unknown suitor from Panama.

But when George arrives to marry Ester, a harsh reality of deceit shreds the fabric of her dreams, and after twenty years of manual labor, she throws away her goal of owning a beauty parlor on the caprice of an unworthy man.

It’s always difficult to watch a story where the undeserving suffer, particularly given Stewart’s delicate portrayal that trades Ester’s pride for hopefulness, and director Bridget Dougherty’s deft handling of the timeless aspects of these women’s emotions. Never once presenting them as victims or begging for sympathy, Dougherty’s production earns a deeper emotional empathy by her honest, unsentimental rendering.

And there’s no need to dwell on the prejudices that shaped the era; Nottage’s script avoids heavy-handedness and the cast more than equals the demands of the roles. Milliner’s excellent performance turns stories about fabric into comical (though sincere) attempts at flirtation, and Santiago’s sonorous voice nearly sings the lies that hide her pain.

As always, the dreams die hard. Today, Ester might easily own a boutique on the same Fifth Avenue where her clients live, but would probably find no greater refuge from deceitful men. The real pity: that few stories of women’s lives treat their apparel with the intimate care this production shows.

No comments: