Intimate Apparel is a show of visual and conceptual dichotomies that allow you to arrive at subtle, tender and painful conclusions for yourself. “It’s a play set in 1905 about who you’re not supposed to love and who perhaps you do anyway,” Director Khanisha Foster said. “There’s something dangerous and beautiful about that. A lot of what we explore in the play is what the rules of the time are versus what happens when people actually connect to each other.”
Upon arriving to Intimate’s first preview, I was immediately struck by the sweep of a deep, luxuriously red curtain on the right side of the stage. Nestled in front of the curtain were a red velvet chaise lounge, a stuffed red armchair and a grand piano. A chandelier dangled above the red carpet. These reds, arranged with powerful simplicity by Scenic Designer Josafath Reynoso and beautifully lit by David Castaneda, grabbed my eye first.
My gaze then wandered left, ascending a short wooden staircase to a shelf full of bolts of fabric, and then back down to the left side of the stage. Here, in the “rented room” of black seamstress Esther Mills (played stirringly by L.A. native Ashlee Olivia Jones), I saw a single desk with a sewing machine, lit by a single kerosene lamp. Grace Schmitz did a great job rounding out this bland visual impression with her costume design, dressing Esther in whites, browns and olive greens.
As the play unfolds, Esther never leaves the stage, weaving back and forth between her kindly if exasperating landlady, Michelle Walker’s Mrs. Dixon, and the red, rich world of Lauren Mae Shafer’s warm but ignorant Mrs. Van Buren. Mrs. Van Buren is a lonely Manhattan socialite who hires Esther to sew her beautiful undergarments that go ever-unseen by her aloof husband. Her relationship with Esther is illustrated by Foster’s skillful blocking: in at least half of their scenes, Mrs. Van Buren continuously stands up on and then steps down from a block of wood while Esther flutters around her, adjusting her lingerie. The visual seesaw seems to mimic Mrs. Van Buren’s conflicting awareness of her hierarchical place in relation to Esther and her genuine desire for friendship with her.
It is also on the “red” side of the stage that Esther visits her friend Mayme, a prostitute who sometimes lets herself dream of being a concert pianist. Alason Little is irresistibly fresh and funny, free-spirited and guarded as Mayme, and it is a treat to watch these two actresses connect onstage.
Once a week, Esther’s horizontal tread is broken by visits up the staircase to Mr. Marks, a Hasidic merchant of beautiful cloth played with an enchanting sincerity and quiet by Patrick Poole. It is here, among the bolts of carefully crafted cloth that Mr. Marks loves to show Esther, that the show finds its underlying heartbeat and most intimate moments. For their heartfelt but tentative friendship encapsulates the theme that Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Notage’s script weaves throughout: humans in relation to social structures that tell them who or what they can and can’t have intimacy with.
There is a beautiful moment when Esther reaches out to touch Mr. Marks’ coat and he flinches away. “The color won’t rub off on you,” a flustered Esther quickly apologizes. “No, no…” Mr. Marks urges. He explains that he can’t be touched by anyone other than his relatives or future wife. “It is rabbinical law. Not mine,” he explains. I felt both respect and regret in his words.
Beethovan Oden, who lives in New York, is convincing as George – Esther’s letter-writing, long-distance marriage proposal – the outcome of which provides yet another thought-provoking juxtaposition.
Director Khanisha Foster returns to CFRT for her third time to do Intimate Apparel. She had her directorial debut with The Bluest Eye in 2015, returning in 2016 to direct Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which became CFRT’s highest grossing non-musical at that time. “I was thrilled to come back to the community,” she said. “It’s been a very loving process.”
Intimate Apparel runs through March 19. Visit www.cfrt.org or call (910) 323-4233 to purchase tickets.