Intimate Apparel, currently playing at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, tells the story of Esther Mills, a black seamstress who creates undergarments for clients who range from wealthy white people to black prostitutes. She begins corresponding, via romantic letters, with a lonely man working on the Panama Canal and builds a friendship with a Hasidic fabric salesman. To say where the play goes would be a great disservice to it, but the beautifully written script and memorable characters are sure to enthrall audiences.
Fans of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy will recognize Kelly McCreary as Dr. Maggie Pierce, a role she’s played since 2014. This summer, McCreary is taking a break from the operating room to star as Esther. Dan’s Papers spoke with McCreary about the play, Grey’s Anatomy, her social activism and more.
McCreary was instantly drawn to the role of Esther. “Well, gosh, where do I even begin? This play—I think Esther Mills is one of the most fascinating protagonists, particularly female, of the last 50 years, in my very humble opinion,” she says. “The writing of the play is so richly detailed with the depth of her humanity and not just her flaws, but how the texture of every single part of her and the exploration of her character…every single day I peel back 10 new layers.” The story, which takes place in the early 1900s, also attracted McCreary, who feels the period piece is highly relatable. “I really feel like it’s timeless—a story of a woman in search of love, in search of finding out what love means.”
Of course, taking on a role in theater is much different than acting for television. McCreary has relished exploring the character of Maggie on Grey’s Anatomy. “It’s been a really different experience for me,” she says. “It’s the longest job I’ve ever had. I started out in theater, and you get the character’s beginning middle and end on the page when you start…And so when you get to fill in the blanks you look to the text and it’s a little bit different when the text is constantly being added to. [In television], the writers, the visionaries for the characters, are still with you and you get to contribute your vision, too. Developing Maggie has been an adventure. Sometimes I feel it’s really interesting to watch my own reactions or judgment to what she’s doing and then have to understand it and play it or watch the audience go through it.”
This past season, McCreary was in an episode directed by Ellen Pompeo (a Sag Harbor resident). “It was such a treat! It was her first time directing and she was just incredibly eager to meet every single challenge with an open heart and mind,” McCreary says. “She had so many great ideas and really knows how to talk to actors. It was one of my favorite episodes of the year, and the story was very close to her heart. It was wonderful.”
McCreary is also a social activist, serving on the board at the Equal Justice Society, which aims to transform the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science and the arts. “I feel like their mission is at the heart of so many problems,” McCreary says, noting the various injustices done to “individuals based on color, gender, sexual orientation, all of these ways we separate ourselves from one another. I feel, frankly, overwhelmed by the amount of social justice needed in this world.”
Intimate Apparel runs at Bay Street Theater through July 30. For tickets and more information, visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500.