Despite its name, Victoria's Secret is no secret anymore. Today a pair of pink silk knickers or a blood-red brassiere is about as shocking as a bowl of canned soup. But back in 1905, ladies' lingerie really was a private, beautifully artful affair. Handmade from imported silk and Valenciennes lace, with ribbon ruffling and carefully knotted bows, the deliciously delicate garments were ordered up by luxurious ladies and wealthy whores, who stood alone with their talented seamstresses in the secrecy of their own boudoirs for fittings. It is those wonderfully confidential and sensual moments that provide the framework for Lynn Nottage's charmed drama Intimate Apparel, now running at Main Street Theater.
At the center of the story is Esther (Alice M. Gatling), a serious, hardworking black seamstress who lives in New York City and whose rare skill with a bolt of fine silk and a needle has won her some wickedly interesting clients. Her visits to her unusual customers, along with her trips to a fabric store owned by Mr. Marks (Brady Alland), a deeply religious, young Jewish immigrant, create a surprisingly compelling story about how race, gender, sexuality and the power of storytelling shape our lives.
Among Esther's clients is Mrs. Van Buren (Celeste Roberts), a lonely and rich white housewife. Despised by her husband and trapped in a rarefied world where divorce is unthinkable, Mrs. Van Buren pours out her bitter tales of life as a bored and barren socialite to Esther. On the other side of town is Mayme (Cheray Dawn Josiah), a beautiful black prostitute. She's got her own tales of woe; and though churchgoing Esther does not approve of Mayme's lifestyle, she enjoys Mayme's fiery enthusiasm for life. Most interesting is the fact that both socialite and prostitute order the same thing from Esther. Mayme is thrilled to be wearing the same type of corset as the socialite, who in turn only wants what the infamously sexy Mayme has. All the women in this play, whatever their circumstances, want most of all to be loved, which is, after all, what lingerie is about.
Both clients become unlikely friends to Esther. And when the seamstress develops her own secrets, which come in a series of letters she starts receiving from a man she's never met, she turns to Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren for help.
The sweet missives travel all the way from exotic Panama, where they were penned by a man named George (played with a rich, lush voice by Timothy Eric Dickson). The letters -- eloquent descriptions of Panama's rough work, dark dangers and extraordinary landscape -- are so poetic that any woman with a soul would be swept away. And the usually levelheaded Esther, who's never been married despite the fact that she's well into her mid-thirties, is completely undone. Since she can't read or write, she enlists the help of her lonely clients.
This first act is as good as playwriting gets. Nottage focuses on the characters, on their odd quirks and the difficult spaces between them as they pair up in scenes. Director Ron Jones lets Gatling, who makes an extremely charismatic Esther, carry the story. Her powerful character knows who she is. Josiah's Mayme is gorgeous with her cascades of dark ringlets. At turns joyful then childishly sullen, she's a richly complicated woman, caught in a world that allows her no way to express herself. One of the more interesting relationships is between Esther and Mr. Marks. She's black, he's Jewish and there's absolutely no place for them to meet outside of his shop. But that doesn't stop the repressed feelings they have for each other, feelings they express quietly, as when they pass their palms over the same bolt of fabric at the same time.
Act Two loses some of the steam created in Act One. Of course, nothing turns out the way Esther anticipates (though the ending is disappointingly predictable for the rest of us). And since she has been created as such a strong and powerful woman from the beginning, there really isn't all that much for her to learn. The play falters most when the characters are at their weakest, and that's especially true for Esther. The program tells us that Esther's story is the playwright's own great-grandmother's. And that may be a large part of why the ending doesn't work as well as the beginning. Because Nottage has so much admiration for Esther, the playwright doesn't allow her enough room to be completely human, to make the kind of mistakes that come from more than a momentary weakness. Any weaknesses Esther has, she corrects on her own. And though the characters who come into her life affect her, they don't change her, not in any profound way.
But one can't fault a great granddaughter too hard, especially when a good deal of this story is so rich. Besides, it's lovely to be reminded of a time when Queen Victoria really did keep her secrets to herself.
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