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Intimate Apparel

a Historical Drama
by Lynn Nottage

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1617

SHOWING : April 19, 2006 - May 14, 2006



New York City. 1905. Esther Mills, a gifted seamstress of ladies' undergarments, marries her pen-pal correspondent, revealing all she had hidden about herself.

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The Hidden
by Dedalus
Friday, May 12, 2006
“What makes a life worthy of words?”

So says the teaser on the cover of the Alliance Theatre’s production of “Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage. I find this ironic, since what was most moving about this excellent production was what was unsaid, what was hidden. In fact, words are shown to be limiting, building an artificial boundary that acts as both shield and prison.

To summarize, it is New York City, 1905. Esther (Roslyn Ruff) is a 35-year-old daughter of the South, a child of ex-slaves who has come to New York, who has learned the skill of sewing, who now creates “intimate apparel” for both the ladies of society and the denizens of the red-light Tenderloin District. She dreams of opening a beauty shop for African-American women, and, to that end, has sewn her life savings into a quilt. George Armstrong (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) is a child of the Caribbean, a worker on the Panama Canal dig, a man who begins a correspondence with Esther, marrying her based solely on her letters. Too quickly, the words of the correspondence set the boundaries of the marriage, the silences of the wedding bed set its tone.

It is in Act II where we see the results – where we see revealed what was hidden just below the surface, like the delicate lingerie that is Esther’s life’s work. I confess to going into intermission feeling ambivalent about this play. Up to that point, I admired its artistry, its design, its performances (with fine supporting work by Andrea Frye, Rhoda Griffis, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Tzahi Moskovitz). But it was more a cerebral respect than a gut-level admiration. It was in Act II where all the hidden layers are revealed (as slowly and teasingly as a strip-tease) that the play fully won me over.

Sometimes, the smallest thing in a play can hit you with the force of cannon shot. In this case, it was a gesture, a silent gesture (of course). Without going into spoiler detail, let me just say it involves a garment made of Japanese silk, a character whose faith will not allow the touch of a woman not his wife, a betrayal, an unspoken attraction, a gift … and the gesture – a simple stroke of the fingers on silk, an expression of what was until then (and what will remain afterwards) fully hidden. It was a gesture that gained all its power from the brilliance of the script, the accuracy of the performances, the poetry of the design. The smallest misstep along the way, and it would have devolved into a throw-away, a piece of stage business seen, unregistered, quickly forgotten.

There are many theatrical experiences that stay in the memory. They may be the result of standout performances, well-crafted scripts, or razzle-dazzle designs. But when a quiet gesture hits you with this much force, the production transcends the merely memorable, and becomes sublime.

“What makes a life worthy of words?”

A better question would be “What frees a life from the tyranny of words?”

-- Brad Rudy (



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