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‘Intimate Apparel’ at Bay Street weaves tale of delicate romance

Kelly McCreary and Edward O'Blenis in

Kelly McCreary and Edward O'Blenis in "Intimate Apparel" at Bay Street Theater. Photo Credit: Barry Gordin

Lynn Nottage, the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, calls “Intimate Apparel,” now playing at Bay Street Theater, “my workhorse.”

Although it’s not one of her Pulitzer plays, it’s the one most often produced since the 2003 premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage and the only one to be commissioned for an opera by Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera (that’s a work in progress). Nottage’s most recent Pulitzer winner is “Sweat,” which closed last week on Broadway. It’s the story of Reading, Pennsylvania, steelworkers who’ve lost their American dream. The first was “Ruined,” about rape as a weapon of war in the Congo.

“All of my plays,” Nottage said in a recent interview with American Theatre magazine, “are about people who have been marginalized . . . erased from the public record.”

Her plays attempt to write their stories back into history.

INSPIRED BY GRANDMA

“Intimate Apparel,” directed at Bay Street by Scott Schwartz, is based in part on Nottage’s research into the life of her grandmother, “this woman who was part of my life but very much a mystery to me,” the playwright says.

Kelly McCreary of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” plays Esther, an African-American woman who moves to New York City from the South, supporting herself as a seamstress making undergarments for women of means.

She dreams one day of sewing lingerie for her own trousseau.

Esther falls for a laborer on the Panama Canal — the year is 1905 — who woos her through letters. When they marry, he thinks everything of hers is his, including the savings she’s stashed in a quilt. Her true love is the owner of a Jewish fabric shop who helps her select luxurious material for the fancy undergarments that are her living. But such a romance is unthinkable in their time and place.

PLAYING DRESS-UP

The costumes are themselves a character in “Intimate Apparel,” as created by designer Emilio Sosa.

Two of Esther’s best customers represent the range in her clientele: Mrs. Van Buren, a high society woman bored in her marriage, and Mayme, a “lady of the night” who lives in Esther’s rooming house. Both women, like Esther, are in their 30s.

“Each one wants what the other has,” Sosa says. Mrs. Van Buren “longs for a little excitement.” She settles for naughty lingerie. Mayme seeks status, though she’s a prostitute. When Esther shows her some rich fabric for a new corset, Mayme touches it and says, “It feels like Fifth Avenue.”

“This show is a win-win for a costume designer,” says Sosa, who previously designed for “Pippin” and “Turandot: The Rumble for the Ring” at Bay Street. “Fabrics are always a topic in this show — from men’s suits to ladies’ lingerie. It’s like that in real life: The customer always wants something different from what they have. I get to create their fantasy come true.”

WHAT “Intimate Apparel”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor

TICKETS $30-$125; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org

‘Grease’ opens at Engeman

WHAT After celebrating its 10th anniversary, the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport opens its new season with the classic pop musical “Grease.” Time is ripe for “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.” So comb your slick hair and put a shine on your street rod. And if you’re feeling flush, let the valet do the parking.

WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 27. Upcoming: 8 p.m. Thursday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Engeman Theater at Northport, 250 Main St.

TICKETS $73-$78; 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com

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