The corset is an apt symbol for Lynn Nottage's oft-produced play "Intimate Apparel." The tight-fitting, body-modifying undergarment represents beauty, sex and the constraints imposed upon women from the mid-19th into the early 20th century.
The story is set in 1905 and revolves around the shy, likeable Esther (Lisa Renee Pitts), a black seamstress in New York whose golden fingers earn her an independent living, sewing intimate apparel for socialites and whores alike. She resides in a boardinghouse run by the chatty Mrs. Dickson (Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson), and shares a warm friendship and deep appreciation of textiles with the Jewish fabric merchant Mr. Marks (Lance Smith).
Esther's beautiful creations form a bond of femininity and friendship between the would-be concert pianist and black prostitute Mayme (Lisa H. Payton, sassy and bright as the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold) and the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (Lisel Gorell-Getz), whose perennial cheeriness barely conceals her unhappiness in marriage. These women help Esther correspond with a Barbados laborer working on the Panama Canal who is slowly digging his way into her heart.
At 35, Esther has no prospects for marriage but longs for the love of a husband. That desire propels her to agree to marry George (Michael A. Shepperd) before they've even met.
The mostly lighthearted first act ends with the couple's marriage and anxious wedding night. The play turns decidedly darker in the second, when the disappointment of everyday reality sets in, and Esther's dreams of love and companionship begin to unravel. The story proceeds in a mostly predictable manner, but the fine cast keeps the audience engaged through the foreseeable tragedies.
In the pivotal role of Esther, Pitts positively shines, shifting effortlessly between comedic and serious moments. Her portrayal is layered and nuanced, simultaneously infusing the character with sadness, vulnerability and a kind of ferocity. In Pitts' performance, Esther's journey to self-knowledge is believable, as she deftly maneuvers through meekness and longing to find herself -- and true independence.
As George, Shepperd has the delicate act of transforming from sturdy, eloquent lover to exploitive and wayward husband without becoming a stereotyped villain. Shepperd, in a forceful performance but uneven Bajan accent, manages to win just enough sympathy to give his character some complexity.
The play's real emotional capstone comes from the scenes between Esther and Mr. Marks, played with understated subtlety by Smith. When the two touch across racial and religious lines through the medium of fabric, it's a moment of palpable, bittersweet restraint and longing.
Jennifer Brawn Gittings' gorgeous costume design aptly sets the play at the turn of the century. But Fred Kinney's multilevel set, though lovely in its constituent pieces, is clunky and unappealing as a whole. Mr. Mark's shop sits atop Mayme's bedroom/office, and while a big unsightly brick wall is used with intriguing effect in the beginning, it remains a big ugly brick wall through the second half. The characters sometimes seem swallowed up by this rather un-intimate space, which also makes for some inconsistent entrances and exits.
But easily look past the set and you'll find a captivating and touching tale that also lends some historical and cultural perspective to stories too often anonymous and ignored. The Rep's production, with kudos to director Sonnenberg, balances great storytelling with social commentary.
PROGRAM: "Intimate Apparel"
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Dates: Through April 9
Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Lyceum Stage Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
More information: (619) 544-1000, www.sandiegorep.com
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