Stitching together an unlikely romance

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Viola Davis and Russell Hornsby in Intimate Apparel

“Intimate Apparel” at the Mark Taper Forum brings to mind the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby” in relation to black women, and women in general. A gentle kind of drama, the play focuses on a black seamstress who has been working since she was nine and is now, at the age of 35, facing life as a spinster. The word is irrelevant today, but we’re talking about the year 1905.

The author, Lynn Nottage, certainly has a way with words and brings to life the characters in her play. Viola Davis, who is fortunate to be on intimate terms with the well-limned cast, plays the seamstress, Esther, with charm and pathos. There is the foolish Mrs. Van Buren, wealthy and spoiled, who must play the devoted wife because other options are not open. She does not realize that she is fortunate when contrasted with the wearying life of her seamstress.

Esther has a special friendship with her fabric supplier, an Orthodox Jew with whom she has great rapport. However, religion forbids him to be touched, literally, by a woman who is not his wife. Although they feel drawn to each other, any relationship is out of the question. Her best friend is a prostitute who realizes her limitations as a black. Offering advice suitable for every occasion is her landlady, Mrs. Dickson, who represents the independent black woman.

The plot revolves around Esther’s long-distance romance with, George, a laborer who is working on the Panama Canal. He writes and asks her to correspond with him. The letters are beautifully written and Russell Hornsby is perfect as a letter reader and lover. The second act addresses the question of whether this rather unlikely coupling will work out.

Lynda Gravatt as the landlady, Arija Bareikis as the socialite, Corey Stoll as the fabric salesman and Lauren Velez as the prostitute are all excellent.

This is a clever production, with the various sets moved quickly and easily. Credit goes to Mary K. Klinger. The all-important costumes are the work of Catherine Zuber who contrasts the elegant gowns of Mrs. Van Buren with the simple attire of Esther. Kudos goes to Daniel Sullivan for his seamless direction.