ST. PETERSBURG – The American Stage Theatre Company, 163 3rd St N, St. Pete, opened the 2015-16 season in style with Lynn Nottage’s 2003 award-winning play “Intimate Apparel.” This piece of genius is all about what lies just underneath the surface.
Set in 1905 in New York City, African-American seamstress Esther busily sews intimate apparels for other women, squirreling away money in her quilt to achieve her dream of opening her own beauty parlor. At 35, she still holds out hope that she can someday find love like the women in her boarding house, who one by one get married and move out.
When the shy, illiterate Esther begins receiving letters from George, a Caribbean bachelor at work on the Panama Canal, she must rely upon unhappily married Mrs. Van Buren to help her carry on the correspondence.
As George and Esther bare more and more of one another in their letters, their epistolary romance begins to fully blossom, and we find ourselves genuinely rooting for Esther’s happiness after her lifetime of patience and toil. But in time the seamstress discovers she is in for more than she bargained when her new beau finally arrives stateside and shows his true colors.
Nikole Williams’ portrayal of Esther is heartfelt and hard-hitting without coming off as sappy or maudlin. She manages to believably strike that delicate balance between an independent woman with a goal and one who is afraid she may wind up completely alone.
Daniel Capote is excellent as Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant who shares a chaste, unspoken bond with Esther as he provides her with material for corsets, negligees and the like.
Though their mutual attraction is forbidden—the social and religious barriers of 1900s Manhattan see to that—it forms some of the most transcendental and emotional moments of the entire production.
In one of the play’s most poignant moments, Esther cannot help herself as she reaches out to touch Mr. Marks, whose religion doesn’t allow contact with a woman who is not his wife. Whether it is with a well-timed mournful look from Williams or an equally pregnant-with-meaning hesitation from Capote, the two effectively convey the predicament of outsiders who simply yearn for true intimacy.
To that end, it is no coincidence that a bed is a central focal point in most of the scenes, making it nearly impossible not to feel the characters’ desire for closeness or yearning for intimacy on whatever level, while providing at least a hint of underlying passion.
The characters—from spinster Esther to world-weary prostitute Mayme to discontented Mrs. Van Buren to the lonely boarding house’s operator Mrs. Dickson—all seem connected within their circle of independently unfulfilled lives.
ZZ Moor is first rate as Mayme, delivering her lines with a spirited matter-of-factness that conveys bold confidence yet subtly belies her character’s very real need to be respected and even loved.
Artistic director Stephanie Gularte’s cohesive production moves with a crisp rhythm toward its climax, yet lingers just enough in crucial moments to fully drive home the power of the compelling heartbreak, the genuine tenderness and the devastating revelations of “Intimate Apparel.”
You still have time to take in “Intimate Apparel” before the Oct. 11 closing date. For complete show times and ticket information, visit americanstage.org or call (727) 823-7529.