As I sat watching “Intimate Apparel” presented by Eclipse Theatre Company, the words of renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie echoed in my mind: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.” Adichie’s idea—that we as women, no matter how successful we are in our own right, are somehow invalidated if we are not married—is the same societal fallacy that Esther (Kelly Owens) faces in Lynn Nottage’s play set in New York City in 1905.
Esther, a successful seamstress of intimate apparel—especially for an African-American woman during that time –has recently turned thirty-five. Feelings of jealousy, longing and inadequacy emerge as she sits sewing a camisole for a young woman in her boarding house getting ready to be married. Mrs. Dickson (Frances Wilkerson), the African-American woman who took Esther in at seventeen and runs the boarding house, insists her time will come.
Esther is less hopeful until George Armstrong (Brandon Greenhouse), a Barbadian immigrant who works alongside a deacon’s son at Esther’s church, starts sending her letters from Panama. Since Esther is unable to read or write, Mrs. Van Buren (Skye Shrum), one of Esther’s white clients, volunteers to help her respond to George’s letters. The correspondence between the two ultimately culminates in George asking Esther to marry him. George comes to America to find in today’s terms he’s been “catfished.” Esther is not nearly the woman he imagined from the letters.
Unhappy with his new life in America with his homely wife, his true character is slowly revealed. He is a cheater, who sleeps around with Mayme (Ebony Joy), Esther’s close friend who also happens to be a prostitute, and he’s a schemer, who persuades Esther to give him her hard-earned money saved from years of her hard work.
After George has run off with the money, Mayme asks Esther why she gave it to him in the first place. Esther replies, “I wanted to be held.” That touch is later found in the most unlikely of places, Mr. Marks (Eustace Allen), her fabric supplier, a Romanian Orthodox Jewish immigrant.
Although the play is a bit slow-moving, director Steve Scott, through Kevin Hagan’s beautifully understated antique space, weaves the story together wonderfully. The performances are also highly enjoyable. Kelly Owens plays the role of the homely spinster with the right amount of delicacy, and Ebony Joy’s alluring personality offers jolts of energy during the sometimes sluggish pace.
Eustace Allen wonderfully displays the conflict between his inner desires and outward constraints, and Skye Shrum brings depth to what could have been a caricature. As for Brandon Greenhouse, though his accent is distracting at times, he possesses the remarkable ability to speak volumes through his face. There was a moment before intermission where the audience audibly released sounds of sympathy for Esther, as Greenhouse’s face said everything without saying anything. (Loy Webb)
Eclipse Theatre Company at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport, (773)935-6875, eclipsetheatre.com, $20-$28. Through August 24.