Some of us retain fond and vivid memories of Lynn Nottage’s beautiful play “Intimate Apparel” from the time it opened in New York in 2004, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination for drama that year. Since then Nottage has won the coveted Pulitzer twice, for “Ruined” and most recently for “Sweat,” a nominee for the Tony Award for Best New Play and currently on Broadway. Maybe some will also remember that the original production of “Intimate Apparel” starred Viola Davis in the leading role, giving a performance that helped to launch her award-winning career on screen and stage.
But let’s move on to the present, to McCarter Theater, and more specifically to Lower Manhattan in 1905, when the play takes place. This splendid production, with sterling performances under the direction of Jade King Carroll (“The Piano Lesson” at McCarter), is one you won’t want to miss. Carroll more than keeps the faith with the author’s heart-warming and heart-stirring drama about Esther (a vibrant and bracing performance by Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a 35-year-old African-American woman determined to find a place for herself beyond the world she has known sitting behind a sewing machine.
Carroll’s direction and staging reveal the action of this intimate play as distinctly separated pieces of a puzzle. These have been stunningly lighted by designer Nicole Pearce within an impressive two-level unit setting by Alexis Distler that has been designed to accommodate various locations with imaginative specificity.
The play is filled with passion and a compassion for the way Esther almost unwittingly finds herself in a love match or maybe two. But what is it really that will free her from her life in the boarding house where she has lived for the past 18 years? The play moves spiritedly along in two acts with Act II resonating with the kinds of surprises and disclosures that insure that our interest never wanes.
What surprises Esther is discovering how prayers are often answered in the most circuitous of ways. Secure in her talent for designing intimate apparel for customers as well as for the women who reside in the rooming house, Esther, a spinster, has little confidence that she will find a husband. Her landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Brenda Pressley), has other ideas and is more than willing to help. Considering the scarcity of local prospects, Esther is, nevertheless, pretty vocal about what she is willing to compromise in the romance department.
Esther hopes that her years of savings working as a seamstress will someday allow her to open a beauty parlor. She sews most regularly for Mrs. Van Buren (well-played by Kate MacCluggage), a white, emotionally conflicted society woman locked into an unhappy marriage. How curious and sad it is that Mrs. Van Buren fills the void in her life with alcohol by drinking and reading Esther’s correspondence between her and a construction worker on the Panama Canal.
This is where George (a terrific and virile Galen Kane), a native of Barbados, enters the picture — his gentle love-making and wooing through his letters seems to be just what Esther needs. His eloquent and perhaps a little too florid prose impresses her enough to seal a commitment to marriage.
The play nicely integrates two more significant characters who play a part in and become influences in Esther’s future. Surprisingly close to virginal Esther is Mayme (lustrous performance by Jessica Frances Dukes), an empathetic prostitute for whom Esther designs intimate apparel. A nice touch includes Mayme banging out ragtime melodies on the piano in her room. Most tenderly integrated is the relationship between Esther and Mr. Marks (a warmly human demeanor by Tasso Feldman), a Jewish fabric merchant. In a quite remarkable way, a bond is created between them as is an unspoken attraction, one that fosters a romantic supposition that the playwright builds upon with extraordinary sensitivity.
The play also deals poignantly with the pain of the disillusioned Esther’s disintegrating marriage to a man who may not be all that he has claimed, but then Esther has her own secrets to reveal.
At its most profound, “Intimate Apparel” beautifully considers the marriage of souls as it does that of bodies. It also considers the social and racial barriers of working class people in its time. It was inspired by Nottage’s great grandmother’s life as a seamstress. Inspired is also the word to best describe this play.
Intimate Apparel, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through June 4. $25 to $96.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.