PEN PALS Ellis and Wilson, Jr. [Photo by Mark Turek]
Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage, concludes with a projected photograph of an anonymous black seamstress in 1905, and the staging by Trinity Repertory Company (through March 2) can be thought of as imagining her life.
Esther (Mia Ellis) is not working in a factory, at least not during this period of her story, which is being directed by veteran company actor Janice Duclos. It’s a personal rather than historical accounting, based on the playwright’s great-grandmother experiences as a seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York City. The play is true to this much of family history: that the young woman corresponded with a laborer from Barbados as he was working on the Panama Canal, and that they married.
Nottage creates a gradually absorbing story of hope striking sparks against reality, of a 35-year-old woman who has given up on having a normal life, until she finally has a chance for one. She has been working since age 9, is undereducated to the point of illiteracy, and had considered herself unattractive, with marriage out of the question.
Esther lives in a boarding house run by a strong-willed but kindly Mrs. Dickson (Barbara Meek), who cares enough about Esther to at one point tear up a letter, right in front of her, from that pen pal in Panama, suspicious about his motives.
George Armstrong (Joe Wilson, Jr.) sends Esther sensitive, sometimes poetical descriptions of his fraught circumstances, covered in mud, not wanting to become one of the frequent work deaths, one for every 20 feet as they slowly tear away the jungle.
Esther has another man in her life, though one with numerous strikes against fulfilling their growing romantic attraction. Not only is Mr. Marks (Mauro Hantman) white, he is a conservative Jew, with a Romanian accent, prohibited from touching a woman not his wife or close relative. He is a tailor who supplies her with bolts of cloth from which she makes dresses. It’s a bit much how polar opposite she and Marks are, but the play redeems itself in so many ways that this contrivance can easily be forgiven.
The intimate apparel of the title refers to the pink corsets, complete with a row of tiny dangling beads, that she has made for two regular customers. Mrs. Van Buren (Angela Brazil) is a lady of high society, a copious drinker, and a wife largely ignored by the wealthy man she married for financial security. She hates confining undergarments as much as she hates the opera she also is obliged to put up with, dual metaphors for the unauthentic lives of the period. Modeling the pink corset she has just received, she says, “I feel like a tart from the Tenderloin.” The customer for the original corset was Esther’s prostitute friend Mayme (Shelley Fort), who also works as a nightclub singer. We first see her banging angrily on a piano.
Esther’s correspondence with George goes on for six months, as we see Wilson feelingly recite the texts. He proposes marriage and she accepts.