'Intimate Apparel': Most Mentionable

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Behold the ginger way actress Deidra LaWan Starnes handles fabric in "Intimate Apparel," Lynn Nottage's drama about a black seamstress in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. As Esther, a 35-year-old spinster who sews fine undergarments, Starnes caresses material as if it's the best friend she's ever had.

That's not far from the truth about Esther, whose story unfolds in a series of elegant, probing conversations beautifully played in the African Continuum Theatre Company's current production. Esther's life is defined by arm's-length relationships. Whether it's with a ritzy white client or an Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant, intimacy is a myth, even when the subject is underwear.

Things change as Esther begins to return diplomatically worded but unmistakably romantic letters from a man she's never met, a Caribbean laborer working on the Panama Canal. The illiterate Esther recruits a well-to-do white woman, Mrs. Van Buren, to help formulate replies, and the subtle interplay between Starnes's tentative Esther and Susan Lynskey's highly attuned Mrs. Van Buren begin to cinch this as one of the company's most exquisitely calibrated shows.

Under Jennifer L. Nelson's watchful direction, small gestures register loud and clear. The tightening of a corset, the display of fine silk -- Nelson and her cast give these moments room to breathe. In the brief silences, you warm to Esther's sensitivities and to the connections between these figures that grow by slow degrees.

Followers of African Continuum will recall that Nelson stepped down as artistic director last year, only to be pressed into service for this show after the company fell into disarray. "Intimate Apparel" makes a case for the troupe on several fronts, not least that this is the Washington premiere of a sturdy drama that debuted at Baltimore's Center Stage in 2003 and played in New York four years ago. Nottage is not a writer to neglect.

The show also fits smartly in the Atlas's Sprenger Theatre, a comfortable base of operations for the company after years of itinerant producing. Klyph Stanford's multi-platform set evokes the city skyline while creating small rooms that gently thrust characters together even as social convention pulls them apart. The tension is a persistent source of fascination.

So is the pressure between hopes and reality that, in the second act, begins to echo "A Raisin in the Sun." (There is money to invest; can the man be trusted with it?) Nottage's script is somewhat less deft after intermission, intensifying in ways that are often too easy to anticipate. Still, the sense of dread isn't wholly off-key, and the playwright has one revelation up her sleeve that made the audience gasp during Saturday night's opening.

In any case, the cold reality of the play's later stages only accentuates the early delicacies. These include letters penned and read with such tender urgency your heart could break, with Starnes clutching each missive like gold while Zuanna Sherman (the man in Panama) stands in half-light at the back of the stage, barely real.

Diana Khoury's costumes summon the period, and perhaps she is also responsible for the vivid bolts of fabric that Daniel Eichner, as the intriguing, propriety-minded young merchant, flourishes with understated sensual appeal. Such moments are unexpectedly rich, and if certain characters hew a little too close to type -- the flinty landlady, the hooker with the heart of gold -- the cast generally exploits each chance to extract meaning from between the lines. They give the play a velvet touch.

Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Lighting design, Klyph Stanford; sound design, Chas Marsh. With Jewell Robinson and Annette Dees Grevious. About 2 1/2 hours. Through May 18 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit

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