Layer upon layer of the ingredients that make remarkable theater are on display at the New Jewish Theatre’s Intimate Apparel, which runs through February 12. Lynn Nottage’s concept and subsequent script, the acting, set, lighting and costumes all contribute to make the experience.
Nottage began thinking about the play when she found a photograph of her great grandmother, a seamstress in Brooklyn who’d married a Barbadian immigrant. And that’s the core of the story here, the seamstress specializing in beautiful underthings weaving a tale of intimacy, where it happens and how it happens, in not just its physical sense but in the emotions as well.
Jacqueline Thompson is Esther, the seamstress living in a rooming house in New York just after the turn of the last century. She may be illiterate but she’s talented with her fingers, as she says, a rather reserved woman turning 35 very conscious of her unmarried state. She’s not doing piece work as a subcontractor, but has private clients. She buys particularly lovely fabric from a merchant named Mr. Marks, Jim Butz.
Someone from her church has gone off to work on the Panama Canal and suggests to a fellow worker that he might want to correspond with Esther – and so we meet George, played by Chauncy Thomas. Esther’s landlady, Linda Kennedy, elegant and a bit of both mother hen and busybody, scoffs at this, but two of Esther’s clients, a white society matron, Julie Layton, and a high-toned prostitute, Andrea Purnell, help with writing her replies to George. Months later he comes to New York, Esther having agreed to marry him, sight unseen.
There’s a great deal of fine work from all the actors. It’s a bravura performance of Esther’s restraint from Jacqueline Thompson, certainly, and Chauncy Thomas’ George is gloriously just the opposite. Purnell and Layton subtly bring out the similarities in their situations, Purnell in particular taking advantage of the script to emphasize the humanity and pain of her character. Kennedy always does warm and elegant well, and here we’re deliberately not sure if she’s concerned or just nosey. Pay particular attention to Butz’ Mr. Marks, with incredible body language in his portrayal, miniscule gestures and timing that show us what he’s thinking – or perhaps deciding what not to think.
Gary Wayne Barker has brought it all together, including some excellent tech work. Peter and Margery Spack’s set, great swathes of fabric for the story of the seamstress, is deeply imaginative, enhanced by lighting design from Sean Savoie. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes, with work from Craig Jones and Eliana Eshel, are a pleasure to behold, with lots of Victorian-era lingerie. Christopher Sifford designed the billowy confections that are the wigs. And Amanda Werre’s sound design, including music that contributes a lot, can’t be ignored.
A remarkable evening of theatre in, if you’ll excuse the adjective, an intimate space.
through February 12
The New Jewish Theatre
The Wool Family Studio
Jewish Community Center Staenberg Family Complex
2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur