Sinclair Community College supplies an absorbing local premiere of Lynn Nottage’s poignant 2003 drama “Intimate Apparel,” the heartwarming and heartbreaking account of African-American seamstress Esther Mills set in and around a Lower Manhattan boarding house circa 1905.
Delicately directed by Sinclair and Wright State University alumnus Monica L. Williams, “Intimate Apparel,” refreshingly grounded as a melting pot of diverse cultures and personalities, is firmly led by Marva M.B. Williams, a standout in the Human Race Theatre Company’s production of “Gem of the Ocean” last season. Williams brings grace, humility and ample naiveté to her commendable portrayal of Esther, a God-fearing, 35-year-old spinster defying the odds of her race and status by making a comfortable living designing and sewing garments for the upper and lower classes. As the illiterate yet talented Esther, a true survivor and descendant of slaves, becomes enamored by the letters she receives from the exotic George (an admirable Tray Shelton sustaining a thick Barbadian accent) and ultimately marries him with alarming consequences, Williams strikes an emotional chord that lingers long after the final bows. In fact, when Esther’s world comes crashing down thanks to the candor of sassy prostitute Mayme (a playful Sade Oyeyemi), Williams transforms Nottage’s rich text into poetry. Toward the conclusion she also wonderfully conveys Esther’s undeniable hurt of having been enticed by lies and to have married a stranger only to become a stranger to herself.
The marvelously earthy Catherine A. Collins, who appeared in Sinclair’s terrific 2006 production of “Flyin’ West” also directed by Williams, absolutely shines as meddlesome boarding house proprietress Mrs. Dickson, who takes Esther under her wing as is she were her mother. Collins particularly captivates when Mrs. Dickson discusses the intimacies of marriage. Kevin Erman is equally impressive in a quieter fashion as the kindly Mr. Marks, a Jewish merchant attracted to Esther but afraid to make his feelings known. Katie Beyoglides, in her stage debut, has the potential to take her portrayal of conflicted socialite Mrs. Van Buren to great depths, but oddly stops short, especially when divulging a pivotal revelation immersed in juicy drama. Even so, she ensures her character is a credible confidant throughout.
Guest scenic designer Chris Harmon supplies a striking, multileveled set proficiently lit by Dan Brunk. Kathleen Hotmer supplies lovely period costumes. Jennifer Kramer’s properties, Gina Neurer’s projection design and Kate Joss Glasheen’s dialect coaching are also noteworthy.
“Intimate Apparel” intriguingly looks back at a time when strong African-American women were bound by limitations and a narrow sense of purpose. Thankfully, they can hold their heads high today as equal and worthy without fear of leaving an unidentified legacy.
“Intimate Apparel” continues through Feb. 10 in Blair Hall Theatre, Building 2, of Sinclair Community College, 444 W. Third St., Dayton. Performances are Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 50 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, visit online.