“Intimate Apparel” is heart-breakingly beautiful

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Scene from
Scene from "Intimate Apparel" with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Jessica Frances Dukes. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

I attend performances at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton to see solid, professionally crafted and performed works. I was unprepared for the sheer force and terrible beauty that is their latest production, Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. In a New Jersey stage season, which has already brought us many fine dramatic productions, this one will leave an indelible impression on those who see it.

Scene from "Intimate Apparel" with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Kate MacCluggage. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
Scene from “Intimate Apparel” with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Kate MacCluggage. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage tells the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress living in Manhattan in 1905. Esther is a talented seamstress, especially prized by her customers for the exquisite undergarments she creates. She has settled for a loveless existence, resistant to the advice of the women around her that “the right man” exists out there somewhere if only she’d look. An unsolicited letter from a laborer in Panama opens up the possibilities and hopes Esther believed she had successfully suppressed. Nottage, in moving Esther’s story to its powerful, liberating conclusion, touches on women’s issues that transcend race, class, and time: the worth of a woman’s work as compared to a man’s; the societal pressure to conform to the stereotypes of marriage; sexual liberation/repression; and trust and betrayal within a community of women.

The outstanding ensemble of players inhabit the Manhattan of over a century ago under the fine hand of director Jade King Carroll. While rightly focusing on Esther’s emotional journey, Carroll integrates this with the journeys of the other characters, skillfully blending the play’s drama with unobtrusive comedy to present a realistic portrait of the society and the times these characters inhabit.

"Intimate Apparel" scene with Galen Kane and Quincy Tyler Bernstines. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
“Intimate Apparel” scene with Galen Kane and Quincy Tyler Bernstines. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

The force of nature that is Quincy Tyler Bernstine blends her humanity and talent in a way seen only in actors at the peak of their talent to fill the character of Esther. Hers is a subtle rendering of a no-longer-young woman who allows herself to blossom when she drops her emotional reserves. Ms. Bernstine provides the strong emotional and moral center of this play, never once striking a wrong note in her performance.

Ms. Bernstine’s fellow actors are also perfectly cast. Tasso Feldman provides a subtle, touching performance as Mr. Marks, the unmarried Jewish fabric salesman who bonds with Esther through their mutual admiration of fabrics and colors. Brenda Pressley as Mrs. Dickson, Esther’s landlady, provides welcome comic relief throughout the play. Kate MacCluggage and Jessica Frances Dukes play two of Esther’s customers, respectively the society matron Mrs. Van Buren and the prostitute Mayme, who in their dealings with Esther provide differing viewpoints on the institution of marriage and the sexual needs of women (and their men). Finally, Galen Kane makes his McCarter debut with a powerful performance as George, Esther’s correspondent, at turns lyrically romantic, achingly ambitious, and explosively raw, as much a dreamer in his way as Esther is in hers.

Scene from "Intimate Apparel" with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Tasso Feldman. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
Scene from “Intimate Apparel” with Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Tasso Feldman. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

A handsome bi-level set by Alexis Distler is put to good use defining Esther’s world: her room at the boarding house; Mrs. Van Buren’s elegant boudoir; Mayme’s place of business; and Mr. Marks’ shop. Exquisite costumes by Dede M. Ayite show an eye for period in the everyday clothes while providing the imaginative styles of Esther’s work, ranging from a wedding gown to a smoking jacket, and from corsets to a man’s suit. Nicole Pearce’s lighting and Karin Graybash’s sound complete the creation of 1905 Manhattan with technical perfection.

As I said in the title of this review, Intimate Apparel is a heart-breakingly beautiful play. It is as close to perfection as I have seen in a drama this season. I cannot put it any more strongly than this: It would be a sin not to see this play, this production, this cast while you still can. 

Intimate Apparel is presented at the Peter Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center ont he campus of Princeton University through June 4. For the performance schedule, tickets, and other information, visit www.mccarter.org.