Trinity Rep’s “Intimate Apparel” Is Worth Seeing And Thinking About

Feb 10, 2014

Mia Ellis as Esther in Intimate Apparel, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.
Credit Mark Turek

That is for sure. Playwright Lynn Nottage, a Brown graduate, has called “Intimate Apparel” a “meditation on loneliness.” Surely that is a more exact, more piercing description of this lovely, incisive and heartbreaking work at Trinity Rep.

“Intimate Apparel” is one of those plays that will have you confused sometimes, a little bored perhaps, and then will suddenly strike, make you fall for the people involved and for the ideas being put forth. It’s a play most worth seeing, and thinking about.

It begins and ends in New York City where we meet a 35-year-old African-American woman, Esther, played by the luminous Mia Ellis. She a self-taught seamstress, living in a rooming house, working day and night making women’s underwear, oh-so-elaborate turn-of the 20th century gear. Corsets galore, and tight, you might say.

But Esther has dreams. Someday, someday she is going to have a beauty parlor, a place where African-American women can go and have their hair done, their hopes raised. Dollar after dollar is put away in a hiding place perhaps only a seamstress could think of. Dream on, Esther.

And she does. Playwright Nottage carefully weaves in our heroine’s desires. That beauty shop, a climb up the ladder of prestige and pride. And, maybe, just maybe, a fellow who will notice, and care for, a 35- year-old spinster. It’s a tall order, but Esther, oh how she tries.

Trinity actress Janice Duclos has directed with a sharp eye and a fine use of space as this work jumps from the boarding room to a conservative Jewish man’s material shop to a hooker’s hovel. True enough, act one of “Intimate Apparel” is a little long and the Trinity production wasn’t particularly spry with it. But that’s small potatoes. “Intimate Apparel” is filled with slight touches and quick kisses, all meaningful. And then there’s Ms. Ellis, a Brown/Trinity graduate, who glow. Esther, the striver.

Just watch her eyes. They seem to shine when hope is available and fall dark when it disappears. Her body, too, is a signal. Happy and hopeful it shivers with drive. Angry, it’s ready for the boxing ring. Ellis personifies the hopes, the fears of not just an African-American woman in 1905 but all of us. It’s the performance of the year around here.

The rest of the cast is right there in support. Angelia Brazil’s eyes blaze and glaze as she portrays a corseted wealthy white woman who may have all the dough and position but suffers almost as much as Esther. Joe Wilson Jr. is splendid as a man who could be something but isn’t. Mauro Hantman plays the Jewish merchant with a wonderful soft edge. Barbara Meek is wise and canny as a landlady and Shelley Fort, a Trinity/Brown MFA student, lends the prostitute all the need, and anger, you could expect.

You know, some might say “Intimate Apparel” is a “woman’s play.” But I assure you that this male was into it all the way. That’s because it is truly a human’s play.

Want To Go?

“Intimate Apparel” continues at Trinity Rep through March 2nd.