Through Feb. 12
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
It’s tempting to dismiss the faithful production by PlayMakers Rep of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel
as a period piece. Based on the life of the playwright’s great-grandmother, the 2003 drama chronicles the life and the loneliness of Esther (Rasool Jahan) a black woman who carved out a life for herself as an independent seamstress in New York City, eighteen years after fleeing the South as a teenager during the northern migration in 1887.
Her gifts at designing and handcrafting the titled commodity—colorful lingerie for the boudoirs of both the social upper-crust, like the ambivalent Mrs. Van Buren (Allison Altman), and upscale sex workers in the Tenderloin district, like the friendly, frank Mayme (Shanelle Nicole Leonard)—have saved her from the city’s sweatshops, propelling her into the black middle class. But making high-end piecework in an early precursor to the gig economy has also locked her into perpetual production mode.
The similarities between Esther’s situation and the plight of young millennials don’t stop there. Her workaholic ways barely mask an unhealthy lack of self-esteem, which she disguises as haughtiness, and the combination has kept her out of the dating pool for too long. Being single at thirty-five in 1905 New York means she’s viewed—and views herself—as past her prime.
Her solution? Online dating—or at least the version that existed a century ago. When George (Myles Bullock), a laborer on the Panama Canal, hears a friend from Esther's hometown describe her, he strikes up a correspondence that turns into a courtship by mail.
But, as often happens in such mediated affairs, both parties take some liberties in the written representations of their lives. Ungrounded by reality, George and Esther both wind up projecting deep-seated desires and needs upon each other, making increasingly drastic commitments before they’ve ever met.
Unsurprisingly, costuming is crucial in a play about clothing. In her fiftieth show at PlayMakers, designer Bobbi Owen impresses with imaginative bedroom confections in turquoise and red before we see Esther’s striking wedding corset in purest white.
But Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s guest direction is too timid at times, toning down the more graphic elements of Nottage’s script and minimizing the unspoken passions between Esther and several characters on Georgia Lee’s claustrophobic set.
Jahan’s authoritative performance grounds the lead role among a strong set of supporting actors, including Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Mrs. Dickson, a worldly wise landlady, and Benjamin Curns as Mr. Marks, Esther’s courtly fabric merchant. But the narrow interpersonal choices for intimacy that an independent woman faced in 1905—and their analogues in our present day—remain the most striking element in this sometimes circumscribed production.