Finely Tailored Intimate Apparel Recaptures Lives Lost to History

How nice to be able to embrace a play as lovely as Lynne Nottage’s Intimate Apparel . We’re disappointed too often by the plays we’ve seen of late, but Ms. Nottage is a wonderful writer with an open, generous heart, and she has written an exceptional new drama.

Is there a finer actress in America today than Viola Davis? The small ensemble here is of the highest order, and the director Daniel Sullivan is at his nuanced best. But Ms. Davis has always touched us deeply in everything she’s done. Her honest, utterly natural feelings are so close to the surface, it’s as if there’s no difference between the actress and the role she plays. As the heroine of Intimate Apparel , she’s a 35-year-old seamstress named Esther, the daughter of a slave. Ms. Davis confirms-if confirmation were ever needed-her immense, God-given talent.

An imaginative, poetic restraint characterizes Intimate Apparel and its beguiling story of anonymous black Americans at the turn of the century. At the close of each act, we’re shaken into an awareness of lives blurred and forgotten in history’s tumult when a photograph is projected over the stage of the Laura Pels Theater, punctuating the narrative like a nail in a coffin. The first is a wedding picture of the stiffly awkward Esther and the bewildered husband she doesn’t know, and it’s captioned, “Unidentified Negro Couple. Ca 1905.” The second is of Esther alone: “Unidentified Negro Seamstress. Ca. 1905.”

They’re the kind of grainy, cheap photographs that might be found in a dusty attic, or pinned to a wall of a police station, or framed in a photography exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re records of people who aren’t anybody in particular-nobodies!-and of people struggling to make something of themselves in ragtime. Ms. Nottage’s affecting play gives them their story back.

The silky sensuality of finely tailored “intimate apparel”-or ladies’ underwear-is the pleasing metaphor of the play, the social fabric that holds it all together in tactile links. Esther fits the unhappy Park Avenue socialite Mrs. Van Buren in the same seductively risqué corset she makes for Mayme, the tenderloin hooker and pianist. “What she got, you want,” Esther tells her friend the whore amusingly, “what you got, she want.”

It’s a moral we can appreciate: Great women’s underwear is a great leveler! Work as a seamstress freed Esther-”a good decent woman, and worthy”-when she was 17 and facing a life of characterless drudgery. “It was as though God kissed my hand when I first pulled the fabric through the sewing machine and held up a finished garment,” she says. “I discovered all I need in these fingers.”

Her protective landlady, Mrs. Dickson, is the daughter of a lowly washerwoman whose hands bled. “She didn’t ever want me to be embarrassed of my fingers the way she was of hers. I’d watch her put witch hazel and hot oil on her delicate hands, but they remained raw and chapped and she kept them hidden inside gray wool gloves.”

Mrs. Dickson married up and did “un-pretty things” to avoid her mother’s fate. She married a man who had fine suits and was too high on opium to notice he was married. “But I would not be a washerwoman if it killed me. And I have absolutely marvelous hands to prove it.”

Ms. Nottage is a remarkably humane storyteller, and I love her gentle, wry tales. Esther’s submerged, tentative attraction to Mr. Marks, a tailor and orthodox Jew, is ignited by their shared appreciation of exquisite fabric. “I’m afraid it was either learn to sew or turn back sheets for 50 cents a day,” she tells him, making it sound simple.

Esther can’t read or write, but her talent and endurance express everything about her pure soul. In her modesty, she was a virgin when she was 35, but she can make the whore and the desperate socialite more sexually alluring. In its unusually refreshing way, Intimate Apparel is both an innocent fable and a parable of goodness.

The pivotal story begins with Esther’s blossoming romance by mail with George, an African-Caribbean man she’s never met, who’s working on the Panama Canal. Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, go-betweens in penmanship to Esther’s embarrassed Cyrano, write the letters for her. “He so far away I can carry him in my pocket like a feather,” Esther says. But George’s lyrical letters seem to speak for an educated, dignified man and fancy words are seductive:

“They say a mad Frenchman dreamed up this Panama project, and convinced the devil to give him an army of workers. The price, this great fissure across the land that reach right into the earth’s belly. Indeed, chaos is a jackhammer away, that’s what be said here anyway. But when the great oceans meet and the gentlemen celebrate, will we colored men be given glasses to raise?”

George pays 10 cents a letter to an old mulatto man to write these words. They are sincere, but they come from a different heart. If there was ever any goodness in George-and the possibility of some good is hinted at-he loses it in his own failure to find decent work in America. Perhaps Ms. Nottage drifts too schematically into the anticipated bad marriage and George’s whoring around. But the story of the marriage is fierce and touching even so. “You’ll see. I’ll be back. And we’ll begin here,” George promises his furious, compliant wife as he leaves to invest all her savings in a hopeless business scheme.

The savings were meant to finance her own dream of a beauty parlor, yet the near-inevitable loss of it-the loss of everything, it seems-doesn’t destroy her. Esther isn’t defeated. She returns to her former life, to her rented room at Mrs. Dickson’s boarding house and the rhythmic heartbeat of her sewing machine, in hard-won, rich, anonymous freedom.

As I say, the play ends with an image of Esther and the caption:

“Unidentified Negro Seamstress. Ca. 1905.”