WHAT “Intimate Apparel”
WHEN | WHERE Through July 30. Upcoming: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor
INFO $30-$125; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
In Lynn Nottage’s 2003 masterpiece, “Intimate Apparel,” Esther, who makes her living creating fancy undergarments, declares wryly — squeezing the breath out of a client while tightening her new corset — “I ain’t never known a man to court pain for a woman’s glance.”
Sewing skills are this African-American woman’s passport across otherwise impenetrable social barriers. Esther, a 35-year-old spinster, moved to New York City from the Jim Crow South for a better life. It isn’t easy in 1905, even up North, for a woman of color to make her way. But through sewing and a taste for fine fabrics, Esther builds a clientele ranging from a high-society trophy wife to Mayme, a prolific prostitute-pianist.
Scott Schwartz directs this superb, not-to-be-missed production at Bay Street Theater in which a bed is the centerpiece in most transactions. Jeff Cowie’s exquisite turntable set, with mood lighting by Mike Billings, rotates Esther’s world from one boudoir to the next with stopovers at an Orthodox Jewish immigrant’s fabric shop, where the bed becomes his display table for lace, silk and satin. (High- and low-fashion costumes and fabrics are by Emilio Sosa.)
Esther’s room in the boardinghouse run by Mrs. Dickson, portrayed by Portia as a sorority mom, is dominated by a quilt stuffed with Esther’s life savings. Brocade bed coverings represent status as Julia Motyka embodies Mrs. Van Buren’s desperation for human connection, while Shayna Small reveals the prostitute’s dirty laundry only after Esther reminds Mayme of her johns’ wives.
Each woman embroiders Esther’s heartbreak. But it’s men, of course, who complete her emotional ruin. Blake DeLong as the shop owner tenderly kills Esther with kindness as they share deep appreciation for beautiful fabric. Forbidden to be touched by unrelated women, he longs to be touched by Esther. But in their world, it can never be — except fleetingly in one of several hanky-worthy moments. Edward O’Blenis as George, the Panama Canal laborer who marries Esther after a long exchange of letters she cannot read (Esther is illiterate), makes a handsomely seductive villain we can understand if not forgive.
But as in most of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Nottage’s works (“Sweat,” “Ruined”), “Intimate Apparel” belongs to the African-American underdog. Kelly McCreary of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” cloaks Esther’s stoicism in a gossamer veil of vulnerability fiercely protected by survival instinct. We want to cry for Esther, but she would rebuff our tears. Bravo.