There is a certain added poignancy felt when watching the marvelously, passionately staged work Intimate Apparel at the University of Pittsburgh Stages. Set in New York in 1905 and functioning as a quasi-autobiography of the playwright Lynn Nottage’s own grandmother’s story, Apparel tells the story of a young woman who makes the pilgrimage to America to work as a seamstress and pursue the sensationalized ideal of the American dream, only to find the emotional and social complications, vexations and agonies often outweigh the efficaciousness and pristine appeal of this dream. Much of the intense emotions attached are connected to the brilliant stage design and innate ambience imbuing the theatre in which Apparel is staged. The minimalist yet evocative scenic design created by Gianni Downs (complemented and augmented by the masterfully stirring light direction of Lauryn M. Thomas) successfully creates a microcosm for the audience to be transported into—it both conveys the environment and setting of the play’s action, but also doubles as a scenic translation of the interiority of the protagonist—Esther Mills—as she struggles with her hardships and isolation in New York, as well as the intensity of the adjustment for the other characters.
But much of the emotional catalyst in watching Apparel comes from the current social and political tempestuousness, and the visceral presence of the actors bringing the roles to life. Apparel, in more detail, tells Esther Mills story, as she comes to New York to toil as a seamstress (a trade at which she is incredibly gifted) and experiences firsthand the complex social and behavioral dynamics of wealthy white women, wealthily-wed African American women in the tense aftermath of Slavery and Civil War culture, and fellow immigrants. As Esther creates bonds and friendships with various women of dramatically different social and experiential sects, Esther begins to deduce the abnegations and personal sacrifices of happiness women must endure and have forced upon them in order to achieve stability and some semblance of a selfhood and place in the seemingly idyllic sprawl of New York. The strength of the play is showing the nuances of the female friendships, and how the language of the women subtly conveys the inexorable longing and frustrations experienced by women in various realms. Tyler T. Cruz is astonishingly and quietly powerful in her first ever theatrical production, giving Esther a reserved, gradual defiant somberness that drives her interactions with her fellow characters/actors with a distinct grace. Equally as remarkable and equally as nascent in her hopefully soon-to-be budding actor career is Chidera Mgbudem, who brings the vivacious and challenging Mayme to life, and the interactions between Esther and Mayme serve to enrich but further complicate the social matrices and moral questions that ensconce Esther’s everyday existence.
Apparel is replete with a cast that embodies each character with the multidimensional emotions and travails that are true to the immigrant narrative. Particularly heart-wrenching is the fated romance (of sorts) between Esther and Mr. Brooks—played with soft incandescence by Nick Bernstein—that highlights the aching separation and thwarted connections experienced by two individuals thrust into a discombobulated world of cultural and social acclimation, viciously impeded by the racial/bigoted trappings enforced by the society in which they try to thrive. Apparel is notable for using the garments and process of clothing people as an extended metaphor for the delicate, fraught fabrics of staking ones selfhood and realizing the tears and challenges unique to the experience of women, people of color, and immigrants.
Intimate Apparel, directed by KJ Gilmer, is produced by University of Pittsburgh stages at the Henry Heymann Theatre and runs through October 16th. For tickets and more information click here. Special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh for complimentary press tickets.
See what else Pitt has for us this season in our season preview.