By Delia Cruz Kelly
Presented by UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Drama Department, “Intimate Apparel” leaves the audience in stitches while sewing together something wonderful on stage: a heartfelt quest for intimacy. Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Jane Page, “Intimate Apparel” is playing at the Little Theatre here on campus from Dec. 2 through the 10. With a packed house on opening night, the audience had the privilege of witnessing the story of Esther Mills (Eriel Brown) and her long pursuit of an intimate relationship.
The year is 1905, in the big city of New York, 35 year-old African American seamstress, Esther Mills spends her days and nights at the sewing table of her rented bedroom creating marvelous corsets and magical chemises for rich folk around town. She swears her hands were kissed by God and are completely dedicated to her craft. Her sewing is her passion, and despite her prying landlady, Mrs. Dickson’s (Karole Foreman) incessant attempts at setting her up with a good, decent man, Esther is single with no worthy prospects of marriage.
Things change when she receives a letter from a stranger by the name of Mr. George Armstrong (Chris Mansa), a worker on the Panama canal in search of his own intimate relationship. His painstaking, dangerous labor is made easier by the sweet words of his charming Miss Mills. What George doesn’t know is that Esther isn’t alone in crafting these love notes, but involves two of her closest friends: Mrs. Evangeline Van Buren (Emily Daly), a rich, white client and confidant in an unhappy marriage, and Mayme (Nicole Cowans), a gifted pianist and sultry prostitute. Esther, who is illiterate, enlists her friends to help court her “Panama Man”. After 6 months of correspondence, George asks her to marry him and later journeys to New York where they are wed. The new Mrs. Armstrong’s quest for intimacy has come to an end, but it may not have been all she dreamed it would be. The troubles of their relationship beg the question: “what are we willing to do for our dream connection?” Esther must reconcile her representation as the woman in the letters with her true self as well as realize Mr. Armstrong isn’t the gentleman she had fallen in love with.
All of Esther’s relationships suffer in a sort of domino effect after the consummation of her first intimate relationship, but one in particular endears the audience into full heartache. Mr. Marks (Gavin Mueller) is a devout, orthodox Jewish fabric merchant who never fails to find Esther the perfect piece of japanese silk or scottish wool. There is an undeniably sweet chemistry between the two of them that cannot be brought to fruition now that Esther is “Mrs. Armstrong” and Mr. Marks has been arranged for marriage with a Romanian woman. The attention is turned to George who has turned into a man seemingly unworthy of a virtuous Christian woman such as Esther. Word of his drinking, cheating, and lying make it back to Esther. Near the end of the play, in its most dramatic scene, the lies and misrepresentation at the foundation of Esther and George’s relationship are revealed. Esther is willing to give everything she’s worked for away for the sake of intimacy, but is George?
In a play about intimacy, the chemistry between the cast is crucial and the actors of “Intimate Apparel” did not disappoint. Leading lady Eriel Brown embodied the wide-eyed longing and delightful spirit of loving Esther Mills flawlessly. Chris Mansa portrays George’s transformation realistically, bringing the audience along on a rollercoaster of affection and hatred towards his character. Not enough can be said of the stellar performances of Emily Daly, Gavin Mueller and Nicole Cowans who play Evangeline Van Buren, Mr. Marks and Mayme, respectively. Each of them take on very distinct roles unlike the other, but when connected to Esther, are evidence of the beauty of all types of connections and relationships.
“Intimate Apparel” is a look at the multi faceted world of desire that we all live in, and the search for an intimate relationship is within every one of us.