For its final play of the 2016-17 season, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre offers a gem. Lynn Nottage’s play about the unremarked lives of New York’s humblest, circa 1905, strikes all the right notes.
“Intimate Apparel” weaves threads of varied colors into a complex fabric whose sheen flashes and fades with the hopes and disappointments of its people. Jade King Carroll’s brilliant direction evokes a perfect balance of characters and situations. You’re always on the edge, never knowing what’s next.
The play’s main character, Esther (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), is a plain-Jane seamstress pushing 35 who scrapes out a living in a lower-Manhattan tenement. Bernstine gives a heart-rending performance as a woman of color who is exceedingly modest and self-deprecating. Certain that her homeliness will never win a suitor, she’s resigned to a solitary life creating fancy undergarments for prosperous ladies whom nature has favored more.
A case in point is Mrs. Van Buren (Kate MacCluggage): white, privileged, and fetching in a very pretty undergarment that highlights Esther’s skilled handiwork. The two seem worlds apart: Esther shy and deferential, Van Buren bold and confident — or so it seems. The two actually share a special loneliness that reveals itself in the second act.
Esther’s landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Jessica Frances Dukes) has had her own experience with men and marriage. She’s a booster who’s constantly bucking up her most-enduring tenant, 17 years and counting. But it’s not until Esther receives a letter from a stranger in Panama that she begins to think her life might take a turn.
George (Galen Kane) labors long, hot days, digging the world’s biggest ditch between two oceans. He, too, is lonely and longs for companionship. His writing is plaintive and poetic. He seems a gentle, Christian man, just someone…