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Intimate Apparel at University of Pittsburgh Stages

What an exquisite piece of playwriting this 2003 drama is


Plays don’t come any more beautiful than Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, now at University of Pittsburgh Stages. What an exquisite piece of playwriting this 2003 drama is; by turns heartbreaking and heart-lifting, Nottage has created a touching testament to the power of women.

Nottage introduces us to New York City in 1905 and to Esther, an African-American woman who, at 35, has built a small business as a lingerie seamstress and lives an intensely quiet and private life in Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house for “colored ladies.”

We watch Esther meet with two clients: Mayme, a black prostitute whose abrupt talk and salty attitude entertain and inspire Esther, and Mrs. Van Buren, a society lady whose blasé mien hides the loneliness just underneath.

The male characters are Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jew who supplies Esther with fabrics, and George Armstrong, a worker helping to build the Panama Canal who writes to Esther seeking a pen pal. Trouble comes, as trouble usually does, when love shows up, threatening Esther’s hard-won equilibrium.

Nottage covers an enormous swath of ground, but her writing is so delicate and fiercely personal you never notice her huge themes — most especially her depiction of the severely limited choices available to women in the early 20th century, each of whom, one way or another, is forced to serve somebody else.

Tyler T. Cruz plays Esther and gives a deeply moving performance as a woman who fears her own dreams. Kimberly Parker Green, Chidera Mgbudem and Alexa Renee Moore are her three female satellites, each providing texture and color to the fabric of the play. Nick Bernstein couldn’t be more adorable as surprise love interest Mr. Marks, and Dionysius Westbrook bursts into the play like a gale force and fuels the narrative thrust of the piece.

Congratulations to Gianni Downs and KJ Gilmer for the lovely set and costumes. Gilmer also functions as the show’s director. Judging from her program bio, directing seems a new string for her theatrical bow; in the future, Gilmer might think more about consistently logical scene transitions, keeping the subtext “sub” rather than on top, and mastering the near-unmasterable: pace, pace, pace.

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