Perhaps happy endings aren’t always realistic, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for them.
Main stage production Intimate Apparel certainly evoked that wishing. Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by theatre professor Kelly Hogan, it tells the story of Esther, an African American seamstress who makes ‘intimate apparel’ for ladies of all social classes. Unmarried, she has convinced herself that her desire to be a wife and a mother is something perpetually out of reach. Her feelings change when she begins receiving letters from a man named George, who is helping to dig the Panama Canal and has heard of her through a mutual acquaintance. The two begin a correspondence that culminates with the decision to wed. However, neither are literate, relying instead on others to write their letters. Esther’s words are communicated through her two friends, one a wealthy but lonely member of the social elite, and the other a pragmatic prostitute. The problem with depending on the others’ voices is revealed when George turns out to be a quite different person than Esther imagined. Those misconceptions make potential love disintegrate into fighting, theft and even eventual infidelity, leaving Esther back where she started.
Esther’s seeming passivity was brilliantly juxtaposed with the characters surrounding her. Junior Lindsey Murrell, who played Esther, portrayed her temperament in a manner causing her to appear far younger and immature than her claimed 35 years. Nottage’s play could easily have lost all deeper meaning if the actors did not connect with the inner spirit of their characters. The cast did not disappoint.
Mrs. Van Buren, played by senior Mikah Berky, communicated the deeper loneliness hiding under her character’s colorful vanity almost before she had spoken her lines. Mayme, played by senior Krystle Liggins, provided a consistent source of comedy even while her character— a prostitute who has given up on ever having a different type of life— saddened. Senior Elijah King portrayed an utter sweetness as Mr. Marks, the fabric supplier that Esther truly loves, demonstrating true concern for her with every tiny gesture. His actions stood out even more clearly against the cruel treatment Esther received at the hands of her husband, George (played by sophomore D’Angelo Smith in the first act and sophomore Jordan Lanfair in the second). George appeared in her dreams as a man full of love and hope for the future; but in reality, he turns out to be something of a brute. Smith portrayed the dream George with an eagerness that would have made any fall in love. Lanfair brought out George’s darker side successfully while suggesting he wasn’t entirely to blame for his bitter nature. However, this part of him could have received greater emphasis, and Lanfair’s accent was occasionally questionable.
Esther’s communication with such a varied group of people— Mrs. Van Buren was white and wealthy, Mayme was a prostitute, and Mr. Marks was a Jew— at a time when said interactions were rare revealed her character to have a strength not present at first sight. However, even if the story of her strength failed to engage, which is unlikely, the brilliant set and costumes would have provided a delightful distraction. The stage was hung with panels of bright, golden cloth, which, combined with the rich wooden furniture, gave the stage a sense of glowing warmth. The set was divided into several platforms, each providing a realm for a certain character to inhabit. Mr. Marks, for example, never left the platform containing his store counter. Each platform was also decked out with props and accessories perfect down to the last detail. The costumes, especially the corsets Esther sews, were brilliant, exuding color and artistry that caught the eye.
Many costume changes, especially complicated ones involving said corsets, were made easier with assistance from Esther’s ‘shadow selves,’ supposed embodiments of the different sides of her personality. Although the ‘shadow selves’ add a level of artistry to the play’s transitions and allow a continuation of the story rather than a scene change, what precisely they represented was uncertain. The individual sides of Esther, while certainly present, were hard to distinguish in her shadow selves.
Intimate Apparel was a main stage production that burst with life, color, and multiple layers of complexity. And while viewers may grieve over Esther’s fate— abandoned by her husband and unable to be with the man she truly loves— it is nonetheless impossible not to celebrate her story.