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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Intimate Apparel
McCarter Theatre Center
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Brenda Pressley
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel is as intricate and seamlessly woven as the handmade undergarments that give the play its title. A breakthrough work for this playwright—who has since become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice—when it was originally produced in 2004, Intimate Apparel has been given a shimmering revival by McCarter Theatre Center, under the expert direction of Jade King Carroll. The play and the production highlight Nottage's talent for burrowing into the complicated identities of her characters, which has since been shown in works as disparate as Ruined, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, and the current Broadway hit Sweat.

Nottage's subject here is Esther Mills (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who makes her living in 1905 New York through her prodigious talent at the sewing machine. Her skills are valued—and financially rewarded—by a diverse clientele; she is as likely to be found in the Fifth Avenue mansion of Mrs. Van Buren (Kate MacCluggage, terrific), an unhappily married society wife, as she is in the bedroom of Mayme (the spirited Jessica Frances Dukes), a street-smart hooker with a talent for piano. Alexis Distler's two-tiered set perfectly conveys the segregated spheres across which Esther moves, both professionally and personally. She is held in high esteem by the Jewish cloth purveyor Mr. Marks (Tasso Feldman), and enjoys the favor of her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (the lively Brenda Pressley).

Still, Esther lacks the one thing for which she truly longs: true connection with another person. At thirty-five, the word "spinster" hangs heavy in the air, and although she's been smart with her money—she's saved over the years in the hopes of one day opening a beauty parlor in Harlem—she's well aware of the perilous future that single women, and particularly women of color, face in such a time and place. Her chaste flirtation with Mr. Marks is a dead end; aside from racial mores, his Orthodox faith forbids even shaking hands with a woman outside his family. But the answer to Esther's problems appears to arrive in the form of letters from George Armstrong (an appropriately enigmatic Galen Kane), a Barbadian laborer on the Panama Canal who possesses a gift for poetry and penmanship. Esther can neither read nor write; she employs the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to communicate with George, and a tenuous courtship soon blossoms.

Nottage uses the relationship between Esther and George—who eventually meet and marry in the second act—to examine the position of women in a society where marriage is valued, even at the expense of real love. We sense things will not end well. As the play progresses, some of the plot points seem nakedly obvious, while other developments feel unearned. (A late scene between Esther and Mrs. Van Buren toes the line of unnecessary sensationalism). Yet Nottage's gift for language, coupled with a wellspring of empathy for her characters, saves the play from ever slipping into the territory of melodrama or weepy sentimentalism.

This is underscored by Bernstine's finely etched, deeply moving performance. Her Esther is both a headstrong woman of implacable moral character and an idealist dreaming of the emotional kinship she so genuinely craves. Bernstine possesses a soulful and expressive face that beautifully communicates the complicated inner life of a woman who has spent most of her life as a wallflower, and now longs for her turn leading the dance. The play comes alive most vividly when Bernstine and Feldman, whose Mr. Marks is a master class in understatement, establish intimacy through their shared appreciation of the silks, satins, and wools that bring them together professionally. They brush their hands against the fabrics—their equivalent for physical connection—and their eyes glow.

Under Carroll's watchful eye, Nottage's briskly paced drama progresses smoothly; scene changes feel effortless, as Esther shifts from one compartmentalized space to another. Carroll successfully creates a world for her characters, which her actors inhabit with beauty and grace. All aspects of the production have been handled with utmost care, from Dede M. Ayite's handsome costumes to Nicole Pearce's quietly evocative lighting. The overall experience is as sensual as it is intellectual, mirroring the complicated inner and outer lives of its heroine.

After an uneven slate of ambitious but disappointing fare (Bathing in Moonlight, Murder on the Orient Express), McCarter ends their 2016-2017 season on a high note with this beautifully realized production. One hopes it is an encouraging sign of things to come.

Intimate Apparel continues through Sunday, June 4, 2017, at McCarter Theatre Company's Berlind Stage, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets ($25-91.50) can be purchased online at, or by calling 609-258-2787.

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