When dramatist Lynn Nottage won a Pulitzer Prize last month for “Sweat,” a play about factory workers that’s now on Broadway, she became the first female playwright to twice win the nation’s most esteemed literary prize (her first came in 2009 for “Ruined”).
But her storytelling prowess was evident long before, including her 2003 play “Intimate Apparel,” revived now by Ten Thousand Things Theater.
Set in 1905 and featuring a gallery of women chafing under the limitations of a society that did not yet allow women to vote, the drama centers on Esther Mills (Aimee K. Bryant), an illiterate black seamstress who has been working since age 9. Now 35 and still a virgin, she longs for love and marriage, even though the married women around her — Mrs. Dickson (George Keller) and Mrs. Van Buren (Karen Wiese-Thompson) — readily share their disappointments.
When letters begin arriving from George Armstrong (Darius Dotch), a dreamboat-sounding fella in Central America who is one of thousands of West Indian men digging the Panama Canal, Esther thinks she has found the answer to her prayer.
The Guthrie Theater staged a memorable production of “Intimate Apparel” in 2005, with Sharon Washington imbuing Esther with dreaminess, hope and a whole lot of heart. Bryant’s Esther is just as well-rounded and immediate in this moving production, directed by Austene Van.
Her intimate staging benefits from the theater’s producing style, which includes performing in the round with the house lights up; mood-setting music played live by Annie Enneking, and minimal props. That approach enforces honesty. If the performers are not fully in the moment, we can all see it. But when they surface the souls of their characters, the result can be transporting.
Bryant uses a battery of simple gestures to convey Esther’s inner life. In another era, the seamstress may have become an artist. But in 1905, only a generation or so removed from slavery, she’s happy to do something that expresses her creativity. When she presses a fine piece of fabric to her cheek, we feel her longing for something better.
The actor also wins us over with her singing of spirituals, her sighing and the many little details she uses to convey Esther’s emotional truths. That we feel so deeply for Esther is a tribute to Bryant’s exquisite turn.
The rest of the cast also delivers with honesty.
Wearing a Panama hat and speaking in a musical Caribbean lilt, Dotch’s George sounds more like a romantic poet than a laborer covered in mud, as he describes himself. The actor savors his literary lines, and as George romances Esther, sight unseen, his lyricism also wins us over, even if it all sounds way too good to be true.
Keller’s Mrs. Dickson is big, bold and full of verve. The actor imbues her with warmth, wit and a lot of heart. Dame-Jasmine Hughes also is engaging as Mayme, a sex worker and piano player trying to make the best of her life. Wiese-Thompson gives us a peek into Mrs. Van Buren’s lusty heart, while Kris Nelson, who’s always sure-handed and can give us a world in a few moments, shows us the tenderness and fear of Mr. Marks, a Jewish fabric merchant who wonders what it would be like to share more than tea with Esther, his favorite customer.