Lynn Nottage’s 2004 play, “Intimate Apparel,” looks at African-American women and immigrants in New York City a century ago, revealing their limited options at finding love and a good life. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production boasts an engaging cast and a perceptive director who work hard at minimizing several script weaknesses.
Esther is a talented seamstress whose undergarments are in demand by clients ranging from high society members such as flighty Mrs. Van Buren, attempting to retain her husband’s attentions, and red light district types such as flamboyant Mayme, adding naughty allure for her customers. Esther lives simply at strict Mrs. Dickson’s boardinghouse, saving up money to open a beauty salon.
At 35, Esther is resigned to being single until she receives a letter from George, a Panama Canal worker. Encouraged by an acquaintance of Esther’s, George amorously pursues marriage, causing her to drop her guard. Esther has also caught the eye of Mr. Marks, the Jewish owner of the fabric shop she frequents.
Nottage makes you care about the characters as their dreams confront realities. However, many scenes lose tension through repetitive dialogue overstating what’s being established, especially in the first third of act one. But Nottage also supplies many tender moments, despite several undeveloped plot twists.
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Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges keeps the staging active and varied over Junghyun Georgia Lee’s multi-tiered set, although the main playing space seems cramped with furnishings for three locations. Bobbi Owen’s costumes add appropriate period details, as do Dominic Abbenante’s projected photographs.
Rasool Jahan’s Esther is rightly the show’s centerpiece, an endearing portrait of an indomitable spirit, a willing confidant for others but wary of letting anyone into her heart. Her nervousness is amusing when finally meeting George, played with charm and fervor by Myles Bullock. The show’s most moving moments come in Esther’s encounters with Mr. Marks, whom Benjamin Curns fills with beaming humanity and bittersweet regret.
Shanelle Nicole Leonard’s feistiness as Mayme brings welcome humor, along with no-nonsense acceptance of her fate. Allison Altman nicely limns Mrs. Van Buren’s faked brio covering deep loneliness, while Kathryn Hunter-Williams knowingly projects Mrs. Dickson’s realist reaction to her circumstances.
Although the production sometimes skirts the script’s starker atmosphere, its upbeat warmth makes for a satisfying evening.
What: “Intimate Apparel,” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 250 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, Feb. 1-4, 7-11; 2 p.m. Feb. 4-5, 12
Tickets: $15-$62 (Jan. 31 all tickets $15)
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org