Trinity Rep brings us an intimate and poignant play by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who began writing plays while an undergraduate at Brown.
“Intimate Apparel” is the type of play that grabs you from the opening scene and doesn’t let go until the stage goes dark. It is the story of Esther (Mia Ellis), a 35-year-old seamstress struggling to survive in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, with dreams to marry some day and open her own beauty parlor for colored ladies.
Afraid of growing old alone in her boarding house room, she corresponds with a Caribbean gentleman who is working as a laborer on the Panama Canal. Esther can’t read, so she relies on her wealthy white friend and customer, Mrs. Van Buren, to read the letters and compose responses. George proposes in one of the letters, and Esther accepts. They are married at the end of the first act.
The second act opens on their wedding night, a scene that is both humorous and poignant, as Esther wants to talk and get to know her new husband, while George has other ideas.
George becomes quickly frustrated with northern ways. Unable to find work, he convinces Esther to give him her life savings. You can easily see where this marriage is headed.
That’s the core story, but what makes “Intimate Apparel” such a compelling play are the interactions between Esther and five people in her life.
The incredible Barbara Meek, who has graced the Trinity stage for 45 years, is just plain marvelous as Esther’s opinionated but caring landlady.
Mauro Hantman gives a compelling performance as a strict Jewish merchant who has developed a strong tie with Esther. The two are from completely different worlds, but connect on a different level. Watching Hantman and Ellis together was a highlight of the play for me.
Esther has an unusual relationship with Mrs. Van Buren (Angela Brazil at her best), the wealthy white woman who connects strongly – at one point too strongly – with Esther.
Esther also has a close friendship with a prostitute (Shelley Fort), who figures into her troubles with her husband.
All of these relationships interconnect in a way, and all are highlighted by great direction from Janice Duclos. Duclos has acted at Trinity for 29 years and started her career as an actor/director at Wickendon Gate Theatre.
Patrick Lynch’s clever set is designed with four open rooms, allowing Esther to move smoothly from one place/scene to another without disrupting the smooth transitions overseen by the director.
The acting is superb, as veterans and newcomers work in ensemble. Kudos to Curt Columbus (plus Stephen Berenson, Brian McEleney and others) for recognizing the acting talents of Mia Ellis and giving her the latest position in the permanent Trinity acting family. I have followed Mia at Conservatory productions, marveled at her work at Gamm in “Good People” and in “Clyburne Park” at Trinity. I predict a long and illustrious career for this talented young lady.
“Intimate Apparel” is at Trinity Rep. through March 2. For tickets call 351-4242.