A lovely intimacy, in underthings and otherwise

In Lynn Nottage's 'Intimate Apparel' at Artists Rep, something fine and delicate enters the house

Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric merchant in the Lynn Nottage play Intimate Apparel, is a salesman. But he takes such pride in his wares that when he presents a choice sample to a preferred customer, there is something about it that feels like a gift.

Holding out a bolt of Japanese silk, a yellow-gold shimmering like the summer sun, he offers it to Esther, a humble black seamstress, and says simply, “It is exquisite!”

The same could be said about the performance by Chris Harder as that magnanimous merchant, in the production just opened at Artists Repertory Theatre. The play is a look at loneliness amid the unsung masses of 1905 Manhattan, refracted by Nottage’s straightforward, understated language as through a dark jewel.

Ayanna Berkshire, Chris Harder. © Owen Carey 2014

Ayanna Berkshire, Chris Harder. © Owen Carey 2014

We should note right away that Intimate Apparel primarily belongs to Esther, who creates the boudoir finery that gives the show its name, and that Ayanna Berkshire – last seen in these parts in Artists Rep’s 2012 production of David Mamet’s Race – imbues the role here with such a strong mixture of vulnerability and fortitude, cautious practicality and innocent yearning, that she wins our hearts from the outset.

Most scenes pair Berkshire with one of the other five cast members at a time, and vivid performances abound. But it is the scenes featuring Berkshire and Harder that make the theater fairly tingle with bittersweet, unresolvable tension.

For Esther, part of that tension is having just turned 35 and seeing the other women in Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house marry and move away. “Why ain’t it me?” she wonders. At the same time, she’s romantic enough to resist her landlady’s match-making, unwilling to settle for loveless security. Besides, she makes a decent living making elaborate undergarments for uptown society wives and Tenderloin working girls alike.

An unlikely ray of hope shines in from Panama, of all places, in the form of an epistolary courtship by a canal laborer from Barbados, somehow acquainted with the deacon of Esther’s church. George Armstrong sends sweetly earnest letters that speak of danger, loneliness and American dreams. By the end of Act I, he has left that great ditch in the Isthmus for an altar in New York; however, for those familiar with the narrative structures of plays, this is not a good sign.

Vin Shambry gives George a rugged charisma and a West Indian accent that (intentionally or not) grows more pronounced the more his true nature emerges. While the other characters here all are lonely, all have compromised themselves in the trade-offs between material comfort and emotional connection, George is the most isolated by far, so estranged from even himself that he seems capable of only the outward trappings of connection.

Jack O’Brien’s scenic design, though it looks cluttered as a whole, works like a quilt, each section representing a different room, and a different relationship, in Esther’s life. For better and worse, George becomes a kind of pivot in Esther’s other relationships – with her neglected upper-crust customer Mrs. Van Buren (Sara Hennessy, nervously modeling the perils of privilege); with the advice-dispensing Mrs. Dickson (Demene E. Hall, all gossipy propriety in rising sing-song tones); with the bordello siren Mayme (Dedra D. Woods, at once glowing with sensuality and drooping with weariness). But not so much so with Mr. Marks.

In his playbill note, director Michael Mendelson says that when he first read the play he fell in love “not only with Esther’s journey, but also the role of Mr. Marks, a Romanian Orthodox Jew who defies tradition and his religious beliefs by daring to love an African American woman.”

In Harder’s performance, though, we see no daring; only the soft yet unmistakable glimmer of deep, unspoken emotion, the kind that is beyond courage because it is beyond choice.

“It isn’t often that something so fine and delicate enters the store,” he tells Esther early on, ostensibly about a piece of fabric but carrying a double meaning. Envying her sewing skills, his grammar betrays yet more unbidden emotion: “I wish for your hands.”

But really, little needs to be said anyway – so much affection and sadness, wonder and regret, possibility and obligation are conveyed in the tender speech, shy smiles and restrained posture between the two. Above all, it is the stillness of these scenes that make them so very moving.

Whenever Esther speaks of how she makes her living, she always says that she makes “intimate apparel.” Never “underthings” or “unmentionables” or any other euphemism. It sounds like a phrase she’s been taught, part marketing, part claim to respectability. But it’s also a phrase that hints at some of the thematic fissures Nottage is delving into: between what’s concealed and what’s revealed; between surfaces and interiors; between apparent and true character; between, you might say, lures and prizes.

No matter how fine the apparel, she suggests, authentic intimacy is the real and rare gift.

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