By Kathleen Kirby
The title is telling in the play that opened Friday at the University of Michigan-Flint. “Intimate Apparel” is the other half of UM-Flint’s repertory fall offering. Set in 1905 New York, playwright Lynn Nottage tells the calmly compelling story of a black seamstress and her sidetracked dream.
Jessica Flemming is the statuesque Esther who sews beautiful undergarments for all sorts of women, from the rich to the common to the less than genteel. She has dreamed for seventeen years of meeting the right man to marry and then opening a beauty shop where every woman is treated like royalty.
As the other women in the boarding house marry and leave, Esther begins to believe she will never wed. However, one day a letter arrives from a man in Panama named George (Kenn Hopkins). He is lonely and wants to strike up a correspondence. Unable to either read or write, Esther enlists the aid of her customers in answering his letters.
First, the wealthy Mrs. VanBuren (Elizabeth Taylor) finds relief from the pain of her husband’s rejection by writing letters for Esther, and then the prostitute Mayme (Katherine Roda) takes over the chore. One thing leads to another until George comes to New York and marries Esther. However, he turns out to be less than the stellar fellow portrayed in his letters.
Throughout the play it is clear that Mr. Marks (Nick Hale), the Jewish fabric dealer, is the one who embodies Esther’s idea of the perfect man. It is a sad footnote to observe that even though he feels the same attraction toward her, there is clearly no future for them.
Finally, heartbroken but somehow unbowed, Esther returns to the boarding house. With help from her old friend and landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Brittany A. Reed), she finds the strength to once again begin pursuing her dream.
Director Carolyn M. Gillespie’s guiding hand is evident here in the smolderingly gentle handling of this story. It seems to unfold quietly and without fanfare or strong emotion until the sudden realization dawns of how deeply we are caught up in the drama of Esther’s predicament.
Scenic designer Samantha Jarrett’s set adds to the emotional reality. It is a grand two story affair with five separate playing spaces and an elegant wrought iron spiral staircase center stage. The authenticity of the various venues is impressive and range from Mrs. VanBuren’s sumptuous boudoir to Mr. Marks’ fabric-shelved store to Mayme’s bordello complete with upright piano.
Costumes are intriguing as the corsets take center stage. With these undergarments being fitted and thus dresses being taken on and off, we catch a rare glimpse into the complexity of this decade’s styles.
“Intimate Apparel” is a lovely slice of time and place. It illustrates the importance of friendship and of confident self esteem. There are lovely lessons here for everyone.
This show continues November 7, 13, 19, 20 and 21. For ticket info: www.umflint.edu/theatredance ; phone 810-237-6520.