Like the lingerie she sews, the African-American seamstress at the heart of Lynn Nottage's new play, Intimate Apparel, is a woman whose existence is largely unrecognized and concealed from view.
But we get to know this early 20th-century seamstress - perhaps better than she knows herself - in Nottage's distinctive drama, which is receiving a captivating world premiere at Center Stage in a co-production with California's South Coast Repertory.
A single woman who has just turned 35, Esther Mills worries that she will spend the rest of her life alone, tethered to her sewing machine. Then she receives a letter from a laborer named George Armstrong, who is working on the Panama Canal.
What results is, in part, a 1905 version of Internet dating, combined with a hint of Cyrano de Bergerac. The latter enters in because Esther, who is illiterate, relies on the epistolary skills of two members of her diverse clientele - a New York society matron and a courtesan.
With such characters spanning the socio-economic spectrum, Nottage provides a wide-ranging picture of the strictures placed on women 100 years ago. But instead of a feminist tract, Intimate Apparel is a fascinating and at times surprising story, centered on a compellingly original character. Nottage based Esther on her great-grandmother, but the playwright's bright, talented, entrepreneurial protagonist will be a revelation to most audiences.
Under Kate Whoriskey's sensitive direction, Shane Williams portrays Esther as an intriguingly complex woman. A successful, self-employed artisan, Esther enjoys an unusual degree of independence, but she is also sheltered and emotionally insecure.
When Esther tells her socialite customer, Mrs. Van Buren, about the letter she has received from George, Williams' wide grin reaches all the way down to her feet, which move with a girlish hop and skip. But it is telling that she registers even greater enthusiasm - and far more self-assurance - when Esther tells Mayme, the courtesan, of her dream of one day owning "a beauty parlor for colored ladies."
For a play with only six characters, Intimate Apparel presents an extensive array of romantic attachments - and their consequences. Besides Esther's pen-pal romance, there's the unhappy, childless marriage of Mrs. Van Buren; Mayme's mercenary connection with her clients; the arranged betrothal of Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish merchant from whom Esther buys her fabrics; and the contented widowhood of her busybody landlady, Mrs. Dickson, whose late-in-life marriage let her inherit a boarding house.
With the exception of Brenda Pressley's practical-minded Mrs. Dickson, none of these characters is satisfied. Sue Cremin's rich, beautiful, bored Mrs. Van Buren is starved for affection. Mayme - played by Erica Gimpel with expansive gestures but too muted a speaking voice - is a ragtime piano player whose only venue is a brothel. And Steven Goldstein's sweet-natured Mr. Marks is increasingly swayed by the attentions of his favorite customer.
In the midst of so much yearning, it's little wonder that Esther yearns, too. But she and George allow preconceptions to cloud their judgment. This is patently clear in their mismatched image on their wedding night: Standing to one side of the bridal bed is Williams' prim Esther, looking elegant and demure in her flowing satin gown; on the other side is Kevin Jackson's rough-edged George, awkward and uncomfortable in a rumpled, ill-fitting wool suit.
As this clothing suggests, designer Catherine Zuber has brought an exacting eye to this play in which the costumes are nearly characters in their own right. However, while Walt Spangler has designed an almost ingeniously functional multi-purpose set, the Head Theater's wide-open, thrust stage does not appear suited to a play about the confining roles of women.
But this is a minor quibble about a play - and an accomplished production - that does so much so well.