There is something very appealing about Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. It is about real people whom we get to know and care about, has a genuine story to tell, and stays clear of the sentimentality it could easily have lapsed into. We are in the nicely evoked Manhattan of 1905, in which Esther—35, plain, black, and a seamstress—turns out gorgeous undergarments for the likes of Mrs. Van Buren, a bored white socialite, who yearns to explore the Tenderloin, and Mayme, a sexy black tart, who wishes she could be a concert pianist. Esther has a warm, eighteen-year relationship with Mrs. Dickson, her black landlady, who encourages her; still, she dares not hope for a decent man to care for her.
Though poor and uneducated, she has become an artist of the sewing machine, and has, for fine fabrics, a most delicate, inspired feeling, which she shares with sweet Mr. Marks, a young Orthodox Jewish immigrant, who, from his modest quarters, lovingly sells exquisite silks and wools. And Esther does have one precious hope for which she has been saving up: running a beauty parlor for black women. There is also a store of love in her repressed heart, and when George Armstrong, a West Indian worker on the Panama Canal who somehow got her address, starts writing letters to her, she slowly begins to respond. Illiterate, she cannot answer the letters herself, but the conspiratorially excited Mrs. Van Buren volunteers to transcribe them from Esther’s coaxed-out dictation. An epistolary courtship ensues despite Mrs. Dickson’s well-meant warnings, and eventually handsome George comes to New York to marry shy, virginal, homely Esther. Can good come of it?
“This very great actress, Viola Davis, has a role here fully worthy of her tremendous resources.”
In Act Two, the interactions among the six characters become more complex, sometimes touching, sometimes painful. Things do not work out, in ways that are often predictable and less subtle than in Act One, even though Nottage continues to show understanding and respect for all her characters: the disgruntled and frustrated George, the gently yearning Mr. Marks, and the three women in Esther’s constellation, variously helping or hindering. What makes Intimate Apparel a must, though, is the Esther of Viola Davis. This very great actress, not seen often enough, has a role here fully worthy of her tremendous resources. No one conveys strength and vulnerability, dignity and hurt, sudden flashes of joy, and infinite stoic fortitude more simply, truthfully, penetratingly; we suffer and rejoice with her, root for her, become her.
In the supporting cast, Lynda Gravátt, Russell Hornsby, Arija Bareikis, Corey Stoll, and Lauren Velez all give beautifully fleshed-out characterizations. Derek McLane’s imaginative décor, Catherine Zuber’s canny costumes, Allen Lee Hughes’s sensitive lighting, and Harold Wheeler’s telling music all cut to the quick, and the invaluable Daniel Sullivan has directed with a quiet mastery.
Welcome back, Finian’s Rainbow, even in this modest, downright spartan production at the spatially and financially challenged Irish Rep. Recently, a major revival with a revised book failed to make it to Broadway; how foolish to tinker, out of political correctness, with a perfectly splendid book, to which Charlotte Moore’s mounting reasonably adheres. But it is sad to reduce the great score to two pianos, however well played, and melancholy to settle for a Rainbow Valley with not so much as an old devil moon, its denizens decimated and their rambunctiousness reined in.
Still, if only the onstage talent weren’t so modest as well. Melissa Errico at least approximates the spunky Sharon, even if she does not radiate the warmth of Ella Logan in the 1947 original. But what losses elsewhere! Instead of a mischievously lovable old coot, we get Jonathan Freeman’s barely Irish, youngish, oafish Finian. In the role of Og, immortalized by David Wayne, we get the miscast and miscostumed Malcolm Gets, surely the world’s tallest leprechaun, yet short on humor and charm. The Woody of Max Von Essen is an amiable cipher, and … but why go on? Even so, enough of this indestructible show survives to make it, for those not nurturing cherished memories or harboring foolish hopes, guardedly recommendable.