Lynn Notage’s new play, starring Viola Davis, is a wonder of quiet, even unspoken dignity
In the stunningly beautiful and subtly delicate new play “Intimate Apparel,” produced by The Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels, Viola Davis gives a performance that is so understated yet richly developed that one feels privileged to be able to see her.
Davis plays Esther, a black seamstress in 1905, who makes intimate apparel for women and whose talent and sense of beauty have given her a level of freedom within the culture and an ability to move between the strata of society in ways that were not common then.
Ironically, while Esther may know intimate apparel, she aches for human intimacy, and at the opening of the play, she is making a peignoir for yet another girl—the twenty-third—who has been married from the boarding house where Esther also lives. For all her sense of beauty, though, Esther is illiterate, and when she receives a letter from a friend of a friend, an epistolary courtship ensues with Esther relying on her educated clients to pour out her heart. When George, who has been working on the Panama Canal, arrives, they marry. Esther will be doomed to be disappointed in love, to lose what she has spent half her life trying to build, but she will go on and does. The stunning last image of the show is Esther working her sewing machine while a caption “Unidentified Negro Seamstress c. 1905” flashes above her head.
Playwright Lynn Notage has taken the relatively small story of Esther and woven of it something deeply moving. The simplicity of the play’s structure—a series of scenes follow Esther from her various clients to her rooming house to where she buys fabric and to the bedroom she shares with her husband-is deceptive because the characters are so finely drawn. One can feel the restlessness of the new century coursing through them, the struggles behind them and the uncertain future. Like the photographic tableaux that end each act (the first act ends with Esther and George looking stunned at their wedding under the caption “Unidentified Negro Couple c. 1905”) we see only moments in time, but the rhythms of the characters stay consistent and palpable giving us an understanding of who these people are and the world they inhabit.
Esther’s scenes with her clients are particularly telling. Both the socialite Mrs. VanBuren and the prostitute Mayme appear mostly in the garments that Esther has made. Both women help Esther write her letters to George, but both dream of bigger, different, freer lives and love to hear Esther’s stories of the way others live. At one point Esther makes both women the same elaborate corset, underscoring the sisterhood-not to mention the role of women in a male-dominated world-that links them. And yet, it is Esther’s longing to feel connected, never fully realized that is so profoundly moving. She has had touches, smiles, and even a husband, yet she finds her heart in her work. “It was as though God kissed my hands when I first pulled fabric through the sewing machine,” she says. Esther gives freely and makes the most of what she gets. By setting her story against a time of tremendous social and economic upheaval and transition, Nottage makes the story of one “unidentified” woman forgotten to history as shimmering delicate and artistically formed as the garments Esther makes.
As he has in his most recent Broadway outings-”Proof,” “Major Barbara,” and “The Retreat from Moscow”-director Daniel Sullivan once again demonstrates his genius for characters who are uncomfortable in their skins. He has created an intimate world that at times seems barely able to contain the emotional subtexts yet deftly maintains the divisions between the worlds of the characters, no matter how fragile or close to breaking those divisions seem at times. Mr. Sullivan manages to evoke the sense of time and place that is imperative to the success of this piece so that when Esther begins to find her own power to let down her guard with George , there is exhilaration in the smallest moments.
Davis is simply splendid. She can do more with a look or a gesture of her head than virtually any actress working today. Esther is not by nature a happy woman, and yet when she finally smiles, Davis exposes to us a heart that has been so long restrained and suppressed that it has a theatrical force that is nearly overwhelming. In these moments, we see that Esther is a woman who makes choices, who has a deep spiritual base, and even while making a tragically wrong choice that can snatch that dream away remains unaltered in who she elementally is.
Corey Stoll is particularly good as Mr. Marks, the Jewish merchant from whom Esther buys her fabrics. They forge a beautiful connection based in their love of the fabrics, one that transcends the seemingly insurmountable barriers of race and religion.
Lauren Velez as Mayme is delightful and blowsy, and Arija Bareikis as Mrs. Van Buren is terrific. Though she loves the garments Esther sews for her, they become in effect a prison and Bareikis plays that tension between privilege and imprisonment with fine detail.
Russell Hornsby is excellent as George, a man trying to find himself, though a con man to be sure. Lynda Gravatt is strong as the boarding house landlady Mrs. Dickson. Hers is the least developed role, but Gravatt does it with strength and conviction.
The simple black box set by Derek McLane provides a stark contracts to the amazing costumes by Catherine Zuber, who uses color, texture, and ornament in ways that are both simple and breathtaking and perfectly complement the characters. Particularly in the intimate apparel, she expresses Esther’s inner voice with an eloquence that Esther herself lacks, which is essential to the success of this production.
This is a quiet, powerful and extraordinary play. It is the kind of experience we hope for every time the house lights dim, yet so rarely find. It is, you should pardon the pun, the seamless interweaving of playwriting, directing, performanc,e and design that leaves one simply in awe.