So it's fitting that fabric is a central theme in Intimate Apparel, a deeply engrossing play by Lynn Nottage now at the Cleveland Play House. Structured around a 35-year-old black woman named Esther who is a self-employed seamstress in Manhattan in 1905, this theatrical piece is like a long swath of richly hued and textured cloth that gradually takes its shape over two acts. Even though it starts slowly and feels overly familiar early on, the playwright has created six characters who continue to delight in unexpected ways until the downbeat but thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Having worked her way up north by doing menial farm labor, Esther has landed in New York City and been taught the art of sewing. Now, she has gathered a clientele of wealthy society matrons, along with some hookers who appreciate her skill with a satin corset. Living by herself in a rented room owned by kindly Mrs. Dickson (Perri Gaffney), Esther is socking away her money and planning to use that nest egg to finance her own beauty salon. But those plans begin to change once the lonely lingerie magician begins corresponding with George Armstrong, a man working on the Panama Canal, whom Mrs. Dickson heard of through a friend.
Trouble is, Esther is illiterate, so she has two of her clients -- the rich and white Mrs. Van Buren and a black prostitute named Mayme -- write the letters for her. Nottage expertly manipulates the characters interacting with Esther, allowing them to blossom outside the bounds of stereotypical boxes. George seems to be a patient and warm fellow from his letters, and when he finally makes the trip north to meet Esther, it initially seems like one of those unlikely pen-pal romances that will turn into wedded bliss. Erik LaRay Harvey creates a fully dimensional George, naturally transitioning from the shy manual laborer to a studly dude who finds the lure of the big city more intoxicating than mousy Esther. Even though he's a cad, the play never forces George into cardboard villainy.
Paul Owen's four-level stage provides a slick playing area for this script, enabling different scenes to melt into one another with ease. At one moment Esther is watching Mrs. Van Buren toss down brandies as she tries on a new creation for her intimate wardrobe; then Esther is letting her hair down with Mayme, laughing at her friend's enthusiastic approach to men and sex.
Although Denise Cormier doesn't quite capture the boozy recklessness of Mrs. Van Buren, she conveys the desperation of this bird in a gilded cage who is drawn to the lowly seamstress, the only person to set foot in her bedroom for quite some time. As Mayme, a woman whose boudoir needs a well-oiled turnstile, Tiffany Adams manages to dodge most of the expected working-girl tropes. Just when she appears to be another whore with a heart of gold, Adams adds complexity to her character: a woman who values her relationship with Esther but appreciates a good time even more.
The most interesting interpersonal sparks arise between Esther and Mr. Marks, an orthodox Jew and fabric merchant who takes an almost sensual interest in his goods. Using the fabric they both revere as the connective tissue, the playwright weaves a lovely duet between these two individuals from enormously different backgrounds. And a smoking jacket that Esther made from lush Japanese silk that Mr. Marks sold her eventually finds its way to precisely the right person.
This play is a challenging assignment for the person who plays Esther, since she's on from start to finish, and Gwendolyn Mulamba hits almost every note with precision. Even though Esther "knows her place" in the racially intolerant world of early 20th-century America, Mulamba gives this talented but flawed woman a strong spine and an unquenchable spirit. When Mrs. Van Buren claims to love her as a friend, she snaps back: "How we friends, when I ain't never been through your front door? Love? What of me do you love?" While mining her multilayered role for the laughs in Nottage's script, Mulamba applies a profoundly specific identity to those old photos of "Unidentified Negroes" that were common to the period, and which are used to freeze-frame the conclusion of each act.
Director Timothy Bond finds the soul of Nottage's inspired script, and the finished product has nary a dangling thread or dropped stitch.