Review: ‘Intimate Apparel’ at Bay Street Theater

Satin and lace weave together a magical evening at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts. Running through July 30, Intimate Apparel is a stirring romantic drama with a lot of heart and a poignant message that will stick with theatergoers long after the powerful final scene.

The time is 1905. Esther Mills (played by Kelly McCreary) is a black seamstress who lives in a boarding house and makes a living crafting high-end undergarments for women—everyone from Fifth Avenue socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Julia Motyka) to a prostitute at the local saloon, Mayme (Shayna Small). Esther is friendly with her opinionated and motherly landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Portia), as well as with Mr. Marks (Blake DeLong), a Hasidic fabric salesman. Esther’s world is turned upside down when she begins receiving letters from George (Edward O’Blenis), a man working on the Panama Canal who is looking for companionship. When George proposes marriage, Esther must decide whether to risk her happiness on someone she has never met. Her situation is further complicated by her burgeoning feelings for Mr. Marks, with whom she shares an unexpectedly deep connection. When she eventually meets George for real, her life is changed in ways no one could have imagined.

Playwright Lynn Nottage takes her time developing the characters in the first act, slowly setting up a series of events that develop in the latter half of the play into surprising and satisfying scenarios, leading to a bittersweet conclusion. Each character has an important part to play in Esther’s story, and characters that first appear simple or comical, like the cheerful but lonely Mrs. Van Buren, show interesting new layers as the story progresses.

McCreary does a fabulous job, appearing in every scene. Her Esther is warm but withdrawn, conservative but open-minded and hopeful without being naive. O’Blenis is also strong as George, doing a good job of distinguishing the man Esther thinks he is in the first half and the man he turns out to be in the second. As Mrs. Van Buren, Motyka has delightful comic timing and instincts that eventually give way to more serious (and just as convincing) moments. And Small is positively magnetic as Mayme, a woman who is far more complex than she appears at first. Small also has a beautiful singing voice, which is showcased toward the end of the first act.

Director Scott Schwartz’s vision for the show must be commended, incorporating a clever rotating set by Jeff Cowie, catchy saloon-style music by Michael Holland and gorgeous costumes by Emilio Sosa. The corsets and dresses Esther creates are provocative for the time period without being tacky, almost feeling like characters in their own right. The rotating set makes for smooth scene transitions and marks the passage of time and place. Projections also help to tell the story throughout.

Toward the end of Intimate Apparel, audiences will wonder if Esther will get the happy ending she deserves. While the answer is not so simple, Nottage wraps up the drama with a lovely message about strong women, independence and the different types of “intimacy” that we all experience in our lives. A late scene between McCreary and DeLong is startlingly powerful and intense with very little being said, and it’s these moments that make Intimate Apparel something very special.

Intimate Apparel runs at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts through July 30. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 and visit baystreet.org.

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