By: Iris Wiener
The layers of discourse are as beautifully intertwined as the fine fabrics running through the hands of seamstress Esther Mills (Kelly McCreary) in Bay Street Theater’s current production of Intimate Apparel. Written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony nominee Lynn Nottage, Apparel addresses a litany of complex issues that in less worthy hands might have overcrowded a 130 minute play; however, with director Scott Schwartz at its helm, Apparel is the most breathtaking piece of theatre New Yorkers are likely to find this summer.
Partially based on Nottage’s research into the life of her grandmother, Apparel follows the straight-faced, African American seamstress Esther, who has her own successful business in 1905 making lingerie for women of all classes and occupations, including a society lady, Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka), and a call girl, Mayme (Shayna Small). Despite the many poeple who color her life, Esther is lonely. She falls for a Caribbean laborer on the Panama Canal, George (Edward O’Blenis), who wins her love with his poetic letters, and rushes into a marriage that forces her to question many facets of herself and the relationships she has fostered as a seamstress.
It’s no surprise to anyone in the audience that Esther’s husband, George, is not what he first seemed. One of the most finely tuned aspects of the play is the fact that even in the most predictable moments of the plot, there are elements that surprise us. The play leaves the audience audibly gasping and sighing throughout Act II, and enmeshed in the tightly woven, and immensely engaging story. McCreary’s gripping portrayal of Esther exhibits the character’s strength and passion for her work with a performance that tugs at the heart in moments both monumental and serene. Her nuanced work is palpable and natural, proving McCreary is a gift to the stage.
Each of Apparel’s scenes are labeled with the descriptive title of an item of clothing, a nod to the ways in which Esther’s life can be defined by the pieces she lovingly created. The only person to speak of her art with an equal passion is a Hasidic shopkeeper, played with phenomenal fervency by Blake DeLong. Theatergoers who have never touched a needle and thread will remember DeLong’s rhythmical descriptions of fabric and the stories behind each piece that has made its way to his shop. Motyka’s performance is also a standout; graceful, heartbreaking and humorous all at once, her character’s conflict and bubbly persona adds depth to an intriguing play.
Apparel boasts captivating “characters” in those of the sets and costumes. Both truly have their own personas, and inspire the same number of grand gasps as the surprises in the plot. Jeff Cowie has designed a set that is comprised of a seemingly simple bed that transforms effortlessly to the wealth and flavor of its inhabitants. The pops of color he provides for Mr. Marks’ shop, coupled with the stunning reds and golds of prostitute Mayme’s bedroom, are intense and rich. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are stunning examples of the period. Never before has a fitted-suit held such meaning, nor has an electric blue smoking jacket and beaded pastel bodice elicited so much emotion from both the actors and their audiences. Nottage’s lyrical words coupled with Michael Holland’s gorgeous tunes marking tone and set changes are exquisite (some of which are played on stage by Smalls at the piano), and placed with great care by Schwartz.
Schwartz, who is also Bay Street Theater’s Artistic Director, has the audience literally enveloped in the story, as George “speaks” his letters to Esther from all aisles of the theatre. His direction of Apparel is masterful. The play’s many questions about the definitions of marriage, wealth, happiness, femininity and courage are unraveled with gentility and poignancy. Theatre doesn’t get more intimate and visceral than this exquisite production, a summer treat that audiences will want to wrap themselves in repeatedly with the delicate touch of their own favorite intimate apparel.
Intimate Apparel *****
Bay Street Theater Box Office: 631-725-9500
AT THE THEATER: Corner of Bay St. and Main St. Downtown Sag Harbor or EMAIL:firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Lenny Stucker