Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Music directed/compositions by Allyssa Jones
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Intimate Apparel is a complicated show that discusses history, race, class, education, and gender in approximately two hours. It is summarized as being a play about a seamstress who crafts fancy underpants. She plans to open a beauty parlor but marries a man she’d only met through letters. It is so much more. Nottage gives a face to the women that history so frequently forgets: the sex workers, the day laborers, the socialites. The history books are filled to capacity with men who’ve changed history.
Esther (Lindsey McWhorter) is a seamstress who designs scandalous, ornately detailed underthings for her clients. Mrs. Van Buren (Amanda Ruggiero) is the wealthy trophy wife whose husband no longer desires her. Mayme (Kris Sidberry) is a sex worker in NYC’s Tenderloin who knows that even working gals deserve nice things. Esther has lived and sewed in Mrs. Dixon’s (Cheryl D. Singleton) boarding house since she was 17. Against Mrs. Dixon’s advice, Esther writes increasingly more romantic letters to mail order groom, George (Brandon G. Green). Between writing letters and sewing fancy pants, Esther fosters a growing friendship with Mr. Marks (Nael Nacer), a pleasant man who owns the fabric shop where Esther purchases her materials. This production passes the Bechdel test.
A dramaturg is not listed for this production. That is a dirty shame.
McWhorter’s Esther dazzles with her sweet sincerity to see positive through the negative. Her kindness is unaffected, and true despite terrible working conditions and meager pay. She’s the kind of beautiful soul who deserves every kindness but instead gets abused by the people she loves the most. McWhorter’s performance is reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple. Except Esther has a backbone that Celie never had.
The entire cast performed well but the best performances, after McWhorter’s, were by Kris Sidberry and Amanda Ruggiero. Their emotional accessibility to the audience was exceptional. The filled the character templates that Nottage gave them with depth and humanity.
For a production about fabulous underpants and period fashion, I expected more from the costumes. There were zippers clearly visible where garnish buttons didn’t provide cover as they should. Some of the stitching was simply sloppy. The corsets were gorgeous but uniform. The audience is seated too close to the actors for mistakes like these.
More than about sexy underpants, Intimate Apparel is about emotional intimacy. It is about the empathetic businesses of fortune, gossip, and romance. Esther isn’t just selling lingerie, she’s selling promises. Her corsets draw on resources of fantasy to imbue the wearer with hope for a better outcome. Mrs. Van Buren could convince her husband to love her. Mayme could secure a way out of the brothel. What Esther’s clients don’t understand is that the physical intimacy of a business transaction is not the same as true intimacy. Just as a client doesn’t own the sex worker he pays, Esther’s client do not own Esther. They assume, like so many, that physical intimacy is the same as emotional intimacy.
Believe it or not, this show is safe for kids. The language is not graphic, nor is the staging. The underclothing we see was racy for 1905 but definitely not for 2015. On average, people wear less on a beach in a Florida retirement home than they do in this performance. It is a family-friendly production in all ways… Unless one is racist.