Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel," running through Nov. 27 at the Vista's Trustus Theatre, is an endearing play about quaint little moments in people’s lives, some of which have lasting impact.
The storyline encompasses vignettes that are evocative of not only the African American experience in the last century, but also a nearly universal American experience, that of the outsider (orphan, immigrant, Black, Jew, even, Nottage suggests, the lonely aristocrat.)
Inspired by incidents from the author’s own family history, "Intimate Apparel" follows Esther, a humble seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York City, as she enters a pivotal time in her life. An orphan who came up from nothing, Esther (Tashera Pravato) is wholly devoted to her trade, the creation of the custom-made undergarments of the title.
Esther’s routine of solitary work, however, is disrupted by letters from a long-distance suitor (Deon Turner), a silver-tongued Barbadian laborer named George who works on the Panama Canal while dreaming of opportunity in America.
Will they meet? Will they fall in love? Or will Esther acknowledge the unspoken (and in that era, forbidden) mutual attraction with Mr. Marks (Patrick Dodds), a sweet Jewish fabric merchant who treats her with dignity and respect?
The play is filled with social commentary on everything from the marital options for a mature woman, to the career options for a Black person in that era, to the feasibility of a woman having a career or owning a business, but the playwright never preaches.
Instead, Nottage focuses on the intimate and personal side of Esther's story, allowing her journey to play out in front of a thematic backdrop of societal norms and taboos. As one reflects on how different the world is now, one is also likely to realize how little has evolved.
As the protagonist, Pravato delivers a winning and understated performance as the reserved Esther, saying as much or more with body language and facial expressions as dialogue.
As Marks, frequent Trustus actor Dodds gets a rare chance to create a whimsical and appealing character role. Esther’s strictly business discussions over pieces of cloth with Marks positively overflow with unstated implications of passion, but more importantly, of compatibility.
Esther's loyal and appreciative clientele includes Katie Mixon as Mrs. Van Buren, a giddy, White society matron and Rayana D. Briggs as Mayme, a high-end prostitute who once knew better times as a musician.
Somehow Mixon manages to convey coquettish exuberance and a sad world-weariness simultaneously. Briggs too has her moments, creating sympathy for a not entirely sympathetic character.
As George, Turner is a smooth-talking, assertive charmer with a rakish disposition. While he ultimately serves a different function in the story, George also embodies both the dreams and the despair of African Americans living in the early 20th century; his unbridled optimism for the future belies the harsh realities that the audience knows await a Black man in this time period.
Rounding out the cast is the always-reliable Lonetta Thompson (who played Esther in a 2007 production at Trustus) as a sympathetic landlady.
This marks the third play by Nottage produced at Trustus in the last eight years — following 2013's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," and 2019's "Sweat," for which the author earned one of her two Pulitzers. Sanders and her cast have done justice to this latest entry in Nottage's ongoing chronicle of the African American experience.
“Intimate Apparel’s” action — which is primarily a series of two-person conversations — jumps from one locale to the next, presenting a dilemma for scenic designer Curtis Smoak: insert a dozen or more set changes at 5 or 10 minute intervals, or try to squeeze representations of four differing interiors onto a limited stage space.
Smoak wisely went for the latter option, creating credible suggestions of Esther's room, the fabric store, and the homes of Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren with only a few bits of wallpaper and vintage props such as an authentic period sewing machine.
This allowed for quick and easy transitions from scene to scene. Costumes by Andie Nicks add to the show’s visual authenticity, and the color palette used is reminiscent at times of a sepia-tone photograph from the era.
Director Jocelyn Sanders ably overcame the obstacles posed by a script that's basically people talking about their daily lives.
There were plenty of pauses for dramatic effect, yet the story moved along briskly. Characters expressed intense emotions without histrionics, and even the least sympathetic characters seemed vulnerable and real.
While the issues raised and themes alluded to in the script are timely, relevant, and vital, "Intimate Apparel" is ultimately and appropriately intimate, allowing the viewer to make broader connections and conclusions while Esther just tries to make her way through life.
Nov. 26-27. $22-$28. Trustus Theatre. 520 Lady St. 803-254-9732.