One of the downsides of New Orleans is that we're out of the loop. Ryan Rilette and company at Southern Rep seem to have, as one of their goals, putting us back in the loop. With Intimate Apparel, currently on the boards, Southern Rep continues its program of plays by contemporary dramatists whose names have not yet become household words.
To put it another way, everyone knows who Sam Shepard is, but how many of us have heard of Lynn Nottage? And yet Nottage, the author of Intimate Apparel, has had her plays done at many prestigious regional theaters and has won, or been nominated for, many awards.
Intimate Apparel is a sexy title. And that's as it should be, for the play is a sexual tragedy. The central character, Esther Mills, is an African-American woman in her mid-30s. She came North, as she says, "little by little," when she was a teenager. She found refuge in a rooming house run by a formidable black woman named Mrs. Dickson, who taught her to sew. Wonder of wonders, Esther had a natural gift for this craft.
When the play begins -- sometime around the turn of the last century -- Esther has been living in the same room at Mrs. Dickson's house for the past 18 years. She has built a life, which we see onstage in the form of two important customers -- a dissatisfied white socialite and a flamboyant African-American prostitute -- as well as Esther's supplier, a shy Jewish dry-goods merchant.
Esther doesn't have a romantic life, and she is trying to make herself accept this deprivation as her fate. But there is a curious sublimation attached to her sewing; the two women -- the white socialite and the black prostitute -- have active but unhappy sex lives. The socialite is married to a man who dominates and scorns her. The prostitute, of course, sells her favors at a heavy cost to her self-esteem. At one point, both the socialite and the prostitute are wearing lusty corsets provided by Esther, who is a wallflower -- an "old maid" in the game of life.
But the human heart will not be still. And the need for touching and being touched, though it may hide from the conscious mind, will not vanish. Fabric is Esther's connection with sensuality -- not merely the intimate apparel that she creates, but fabric itself. There is a troubled, unstated attraction between the dry-goods salesman and Esther. They do not touch each other, but they share the rapture of handling beautiful cloth.
Meanwhile, a counter current enters the story. A laborer working on the Panama Canal starts writing to Esther. How he got her name and address, though undoubtedly a crucial part of the tale, escaped me. Esther cannot read, so she has the socialite read the letters to her and write the responses. The man, George Armstrong, seems sincere and sensitive. He proposes by letter. She accepts. At the end of act one, he arrives in her apartment.
If you want to know how this emotionally charged situation plays itself out, you'll have to go see the play. I hope you do. I think you'll enjoy it. But anything I tell you about the denouement of the drama will lessen the experience for you.
I will tell you this, however: The cast is exceptional. The actors create a fascinating world. Karen-Kaia Livers gives us a believable, dignified and poignant Esther. Carol Sutton's Mrs. Dickson has a game and, at times, gruff maternal affection for Esther. She also has an intuitive distrust of the smooth-talking suitor from a foreign land. Tony Molina plays the suitors (for, in a sense, the word should be plural). One of the enigmas of the play is the true nature of this man. Is Armstrong a sly, brutal opportunist from the jump, or does the strain of his new life in America corrupt him? Troi Bechet manages the difficult task of playing the prostitute straight ahead and honestly. This -- judging by how rarely it's done -- is quite a high-wire act.
Lara Grice gives us a lovely, unstable socialite who toys with dreams of bohemian glamour, while Randy Maggiore creates the sensitive dry-goods merchant who might have courted Esther if the culture gap between them were less or his courage were greater.
Director Hal Brooks (artistic director of Rude Mechanicals Theater Company of New York City) deserves hearty kudos for the remarkable cast he assembled and the performances he elicited, as well as for the fluid and focused staging.
- Esther (Karen-Kaia Livers) initially finds passion in her sewing only in Southern Rep's production of Intimate Apparel.