It is 1905 and Esther Mills is skilled, having made a living for herself as a talented seamstress. She works hard for a more fulfilling life, hoping to save and open her own beauty parlor, while also finding love and marriage. Esther (Mildred Marie Langford), sews and fashions beautiful lingerie for wealthy Manhattan clients such as Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), saving that money for her own beauty parlor one day. She rents out a room in a women’s boarding house run by friend and motherly confidante, Mrs. Dickson (Felicia P. Fields). Her best friend, Mayme (Rasada Dawson), is a sex worker and talented piano player, who dreams of becoming a professional performer.
Once a week, Esther meets with a Jewish fabric merchant, Mr. Marx (Sean Fortunato), to pick out fabrics, linens and silks for her customer orders. The two share a love of beautiful fabric, as well as a strong affection for one another that has no future. There is also the letter writing courtship she pursues with a lonely Caribbean man, George Armstrong (Yao Dogbe-until May 1; Al’Jaleel McGee-starting May 3), helping to build the Panama Canal, and who is not who he seems.
The play as a whole was bittersweet and heartwarming for anyone who dreams of a better life, looking for something more, as well as the barriers people may face trying to achieve their hopes and dreams. The cast was perfectly selected. The actors inhabited their roles, producing very convincing and engaging interpretations of their characters. Each character was unsatisfied or unhappy with certain factors in their lives. The struggle for survival or to find the happiness they all desired resulted in a wide range of behaviors – lying, and cheating among them.
The set design, staging and costumes were excellent. The simplicity of the stage showed Esther’s rented room with her sewing machine, bodices and dummies displays, while also blending in Mrs. Van Buren’s fancy boudoir for their scenes together. There was also a lovely piano for Mayme to play when she was onstage.
Throughout the story, photos are taken of Esther (by her sewing machine, etc.); black and white photos from the early 20th century that tell the story powerfully. The director, Tasia Jones, was inspired by vintage photography of anonymous and unnamed individuals that had hopes, dreams and stories to tell that will never be heard. One was of an “unidentified negro seamstress, 1905,” which inspired Jones when creating this new version of the 20 year old play. She wanted to give that person a story.
Another central character and theme that was consistent during the play was the fabrics themselves that Esther purchases from Mr. Marx. Each is different, beautiful and tells its own story. Without the fabrics that she obtains from him, Esther would have no product for her clientele, nor income. The fabrics that Mr. Marx saves for her almost become their own characters. Each seems to come along at a special time: a wedding fabric, Japanese silk for a smoking jacket, among other exquisite pieces that the merchant acquires in interesting ways. As for Esther’s letter correspondence with George Armstrong, they do eventually meet in person, and as mentioned, he is not the man that he appears to be in his letters.
All in all, Esther knew who she was from beginning to end – a strong, confident and independent woman with skills and ambition. Through disappointments and heartache, happiness and love, Esther always has her sewing machine to rebuild her life and refashion her future, as if her sewing machine was her true match and best relationship the whole time. Intimate Apparel was a wonderful delight to see onstage and I highly recommend it. This play will change how you view your life and perspective, as well as the people around you.
Photos: Liz Lauren
For more information or to get tickets, visit the Northlight Theater website, or call (847) 673-6300.
9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, IL 60077
Show runs April 14 – May 15, 2022