April 22, 2022
Lynn Nottage’s oft produced 2003 play Intimate Apparel is an intrinsically American story: an African American woman moves North to find a better life in New York City as a seamstress of exquisite lingerie. Her clients range from wealthy white women to black prostitutes and she manages to build a life, a community and a nest egg for herself. But in 1905 (and indeed for most of history) when this play is set, a woman’s life is not complete without a husband, and Esther, the protagonist who cannot read or write, begins a correspondence by proxy with George who is working on the Panama Canal. He immigrates and they marry without knowing each other. The marriage does not hold and Esther ends up single, pregnant, penniless and back in the rooming house, but strong and determined to start over. The play is inspired by details from Nottage’s grandmother’s life and though the plot is predictable from the moment we get to know the characters, this is a story that bears telling and repeating: our nation is built on the shattered dreams and dogged persistence of ancestors who were never handed anything but difficulties.
In director Tasia A. Jones capable hands, Northlight’s production is a beautiful tribute to every woman who has loved and lost, while building our culture of seeming abundance and beauty. It is a story of struggle from a uniquely feminine point of view. It is a hero's journey through the eyes of a woman whose only route to a future and hope is domesticity.
Mildred Marie Langford is a strong, shy, resilient Esther. Hers is a performance you do not want to miss. Yao Dogbe plays her hopeful then disillusioned and cruel husband George Armstrong in a way that makes him sympathetic and lost instead of heartless. The entire ensemble is marvelous: Sean Fortunato as the Hasidic fabric merchant Mr. Marks speaks volumes with his silences. Rebecca Spence as the lost Mrs Van Buren plays her racism with insidious subtlety. Felicia P. Fields plays rooming house owner Mrs. Dickson without cliche, and Rashada Dawan’s classical musician Mayme make you re-evaluate what you think you know about sex workers. Scott Penner’s set is evocative and lovely and the use of projections is a brilliant method of taking us to 1905 and the photographs that, for most of us, are the only evidence of our history. Raquel Adorno’s costumes are exquisite, portraying the artistry of Esther’s handiwork in a lush sensual way that is visible from even the last rows.
This is an important play in the canon of American Dream narratives and the Northlight production is the kind of evening that makes you intensely grateful we can all gather once again for live theatre.
Intimate Apparel is running Tuesday through Sundays now through May 15, 2022 at Northlight Theatre in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts , 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. For tickets and information go to www.northlight.org or call 847-673-6300