Agency and Courage at the Emotional Center of Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel’

The cycle of acceptance, heartbreak, and hope are on full display in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, running at the Solana Beach theatre space through February 4.

Esther and George hold hands on their wedding night.

Nedra Snipes and Donald Paul in ‘Intimate Apparel.’ Photo by Aaron Rumley.

The play, under the direction of Jasmine Bracey, is not a new one, having been first commissioned and produced over 20 years ago in New York. The story is a fictional-yet-possible exploration that the playwright takes through her own great grandmother’s legacy. It follows Esther (Nedra Snipes), a turn-of-the-century Black seamstress who, despite the times and having unintentionally reached spinster status, has made quite a name for herself as an artisan of intimate pieces for wealthy women such as her client Mrs. Van Buren (Madeleine Barker) and her friend, sex worker Mayme (Arizsia Staton). 

Esther and Mayme have a discussion.

Nedra Snipes and Arizsia Staton in ‘Intimate Apparel.’ Photo by Aaron Rumley.

Using lush fabrics purchased from local textile salesman, Mr. Marks (Jonathan Fisher Jr.) and adding her artistic vision to them, Esther has found a niche with surprising demand and, by working diligently and living in a modest room let by Mrs. Dickston (Teri Brown), she has managed to stash away a healthy amount of savings. When Esther begins receiving letters from a Barbadian laborer working his way through the development of the Panama Canal, she leans on the reading and writing skills of her friends and, ultimately, builds a relationship through the written word – after all, she wants to be desired and to get married like the other young women around her. But when George (Donald Paul) arrives and the two are wed, married life reveals itself to be something other than what Esther expected.

Mr. Marks holds a fine fabric up as he shows it to Esther.

Jonathan Fisher Jr. in ‘Intimate Apparel.’ Photo by Aaron Rumley.

The cast of this production has done a lovely job with presenting their unique array of characters; in their able hands, the audience learns not only what it is like to be a young woman of color in Manhattan around the turn of the century, but also the ways in which societal and cultural expectations challenge each of the different players.

Snipes in particular is lovely; her performance as Esther is nuanced and real, and the character herself is rich and fully realized. Snipes brings shades of reticence and gentleness and discomfort and hope, all of them presented lovingly and with great care. Likewise Jonathan Fisher Jr. brings an earnestness to his role as the Romanian Jewish fabric salesman. His hapless awkward flirtations are doomed for a sad denouement, yet we yearn for him to find joy and connection nevertheless.

Played simply on a spare stage design which features standalone furniture pieces pressed into service as multiple locations (Marty Burnett), the production liberally uses intentional shadow, silhouette, and light elements presented between two lines of upstage sheers (Matt Novotny) and leverages periodic projections (Matt FitzGerald) to add context.

Director Jasmine Bracey notes in the program that this show offers hope: “hope that we can try again. Hope that the next generation will live better. Hope that we will all ‘live a life worth of words,’ as Esther says.”

It’s a lovely sentiment and this bit of hope, likewise, is a lovely start to the new year.

Intimate Apparel plays through Feb. 4 at North Coast Rep.

Read the program online.

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North Coast Repertory Theatre
987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Suite D Solana Beach CA 92075 USA Work Phone: (858) 481-1055 Website: North Coast Repertory Theatre website
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