Eclipse Theatre Company at the Athenaeum Theatre. By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Steve Scott. With Kelly Owens, Ebony Joy, Brandon Greenhouse, Skye Shrum, Eustace Allen, Frances Wilkerson. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
Lynn Nottage’s turn of the 20th century–set play has great diversity in vision, if not in story. Intimate Apparel is about Esther Mills (Kelly Owens), a black seamstress specializing in boudoir clothing. At 35, she’s running out of time for an existence beyond her sewing table. Her story unfolds through paired scenes with the other people in her life: a black prostitute and lounge singer, a Fifth Avenue socialite, a Jewish fabric salesman, and the matron of her boarding house. Each offers a different flavor of intimate relationship, shaped by societal circumstances and closely held desires.
The cast of Eclipse Theatre Company's revival, directed by Steve Scott, imbues these scenes with a distinct sense of familiarity and shared history; they genuinely feel important to Esther, and the push and pull of them on her own life is clear.
Yet if the format is interesting and the characters likeable, the people never build to a palpable purpose—even when Esther’s correspondence with a charming laborer in Panama starts to shake up her placid affairs. The parts remain walled off from one another, and even when the relationships falter, their isolation prevents the dramatic confluence we expect in a story. Things simply happen, and Esther carries on.
This is really the main issue with Nottage’s play—it’s perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never does. The plot proceeds precisely along expected lines, and isn’t helped by a prudish, reserved main character. After a while, it feels very odd to never be alone with Esther; we only know her through her interactions with others, and I became desperate for some spark of spontaneity or liberation. The moments that were supposed to provide this are too narrowly conceived and too easily predicted.
Eclipse has done its due diligence; the issue lies with the text. And so the production runs like clockwork, which is to say: accurate and well crafted, but along a very narrow track.