"Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage, Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage
With Original Compositions by Chris Houston Music
Sixth Street Playhouse Studio Theater, Santa Rosa CA

Photo by Eric Chazankin: Marjorie Crump-Shears (L), Naomi Sample

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Not many plays in Sonoma County are as important and moving as “Intimate Apparel”, but judging by the rousing response from a cheering audience, Sixth Street Playhouse’s stunning production would be a triumph of theatrical achievement anywhere.

Set in the Manhattan of 1905, “Intimate Apparel” is the story of a shy and thoughtful black seamstress named Ester (Naomi Sample), as plain as a scrubbed kitchen floor. The only beauty she possesses is that of her golden heart and her clever hands, so skilled at sewing luxurious silks into fine underthings for her clients - shady ladies grand and grandiose, and the occasional gentleman. She manages to stash away a goodly sum, sewing it into the lining of a patchwork quilt, in hopes of opening her own business some day.

First produced by Center Stage of Baltimore Md. in 2002, followed by a 2003 run at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa Calif., “Intimate Apparel” arrived off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theater and won the 2004 New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play. It was written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and novelist Lynn Nottage, a true master of the storyteller’s art. She is adept at crafting complex, emotional and satisfying tales that highlight the extraordinary challenges and joys in the lives of people of color.

In Ester’s world, she and her African-American friends are like small black islands in a scornful white sea, buffeted from all sides, taking shelter in each other’s companionship and support. Her boarding house manager Mrs. Dickson (Marjorie Crump-Shears) is one such friend, but two of her chummy clients, piano-playing hooker Mayme (Rebecca Frank) and wealthy white socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Erin Hoffman) have questionable values. What Ester doesn’t see is the love blooming right in front of her, in the form of her Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks (Jeff Cote). Their strong, sweet bond is apparent, but the barriers of religion and race seem to stand between them.

Ester is fast losing hope of ever marrying, still a virgin at 35. One day, she gets a lifeline in the form of a letter from a young Caribbean man she has never met named George (Cameron Stuckey). He’s working on the new Panama Canal and says a mutual friend suggested he write to her. In shades of Cyrano, her responses are written for her by others, because Ester cannot read or write. George replies warmly with more letters, and in an interesting bit of stagecraft, is seen narrating his end of the correspondence through a transparent fabric screen from an upstage alcove, which serves to illustrate the barrier of space between them. George is a handsome man, and we can sense trouble ahead, before they even meet, and meet they do, when he declares he must travel to New York and marry her.

In the small Studio Theater, director Bronwen Shears, in collaboration with legendary set designer Paul Gilger, makes truly wonderful and effective use of the limited space by means of a “four corners” set. Spotlights shine on each area in turn, forming little windows into Ester’s life and the different people that connect her to the outside world. The play starts out slowly, unveiling scene changes that rotate to each of the four corners like a carousel, culminating in the center with the marriage scene at the end of Act 1. There is superb music throughout the production, with unforgettable numbers performed by Mayme. The gorgeous Dark Garden corsets worn by the characters are provided by costume designer Sarah Beata DeLong.

Naomi Sample as Ester delivers a finely understated performance worthy of a star. She commands the stage with her muted presence, a remarkable achievement for any actor. More showy is the beautiful Rebecca Frank as Mayme, who displays dramatic and musical chops that elevate the production to another level. Equally impressive are Marjorie-Crump Shears (the director’s own mother) as confidante Mrs. Dickson, and Erin Hoffman as too-friendly Mrs. Van Buren. Cameron Stuckey as George presents just the right combination of sincere affection, frustration and selfishness in his complex role. There is real poetry in the gentle, caring performance of Jeff Cote as Mr. Marks, perhaps the one role that seems to offer hope to the forlorn Ester in the end.

If there is anything wanting, it might be the need to move the production to a larger stage to allow for more freedom of movement, and maybe to emphasize more the context of 1905 Manhattan. Many people at that time had been born into slavery, and could well remember the Civil War which had ended just 40 years earlier. “Intimate Apparel” only suggests, in the gentlest of ways, the gross indignities and cruelty faced by black Americans in 1905. But it offers a compelling glimpse into a bygone era, and allows us to see not just how far we have come as a people, but how far yet we have to go. “Intimate Apparel” is one more step on that journey.

When: February 11 to February 27, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursday, February 24
2 p.m. Sundays and Saturday, February 26
Tickets: $10 to $25
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – Studio Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com