Catherine B. Rodgers' lovely production for Meredith Ensemble Theatre of the intensely moving Lynn Nottage play Intimate Apparel, performed at the Studio Theatre in Jones Hall on the Meredith campus in Raleigh to a shockingly sparse Friday night audience, led me to some rather gloomy thoughts.
I can well remember how, in the early 1980s, so many of us were encouraged by the Drama selections of the Pulitzer committee: Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart in 1981, Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play in 1982, Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother in 1983. It seemed we might be on the verge of a theatre that was not only vibrant, but that also embraced playwrights of color, women, out gay men (Lanford Wilson won in 1980.) We had a hopeful sense that the American drama was reaching a maturity more substantive than its relatively recent embrace of the earthier sides of native expression — that, finally, the entire panoply of our collective experience was exploding onto the public stages.
Thirty years later, the Pulitzer rosters boast winners as diverse as August Wilson, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Margaret Edson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Nilo Cruz, Theresa Rebeck — and Lynn Nottage, who won in 2009 for Ruined. With such a wealth of viewpoint recognized and rewarded, we ought to be living in an era of unprecedented richness in our national theatre. Yet this artistic plethora labors beneath a concomitant irony: at no time has the theatre mattered less to most Americans. While the regional theatres, including colleges and universities, now routinely swim in the annealing Baden-Baden of contemporary art, in the commercial realm the sustaining hits are all — or nearly all — big, fat musicals, preferably with a pre-sold premise or title.
Even some of our most lionized dramatists now ply their craft Off-Broadway (or even Off-Off, as Off-Broadway's offerings increasingly resemble what's made it big Uptown), rather than on the Main stem. I don't know that there has ever been so great a congruence of truly gifted playwrights as today, yet even the most well-known are routinely relegated to the margins. That a play as famed and accessible as Intimate Apparel, staged in a small venue by a gifted director at a respected school, could attract so small an audience seems to me both a crime and evidence of the disturbing trend of just that marginalization.
Ironically, the periphery of American life is precisely the theme of Intimate Apparel, in which Nottage limns, with an elegant combination of delicacy and frankness, a brief but shattering period in the life of a black seamstress in Lower Manhattan, ca. 1905. Esther is turning 35, and, despite the quality of her work, is forever on the outside. Her anxiety over her unmarried state makes her exquisitely vulnerable to what seem to be the honorable intentions of a laborer at the Panama Canal, with whom she begins a long-distance epistolary courtship. George, whose letters to Esther appear to reveal a soul of enormous sensitivity, begins to verge on the unbearably saintly until, in the quietly explosive second act, the playwright begins to detonate all the small bombs she sets up with such deadly accuracy in Act One; throughout the first act, Nottage plants little seeds — of doubt, or of sheer anticipation — that blossom slowly in the mind as they reach an often rueful, sometimes terrible, fruition.
All of the characters in the play hold some secret, kept from the others with greater or lesser senses of guilt, from Esther and George to the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (for whom Esther sews her exquisitely rendered undergarments) and Mr. Marks (from whom she buys her cloth) to Mayme, the dancer-cum-whore with whom Esther enjoys a curious friendship, and Mrs. Dickson, her landlady. And each is yearning for something just beyond a common reach: success, affection, freedom, or simple tenderness. The smallest act, such as Esther touching the silk for a wedding dress, is fraught with a sense of the forbidden: For Nottage, the innocently tactile can become a powerful metaphor for eternal loneliness.
Catherine B. Rodgers' direction of the play at Meredith brought out nearly all of the playwright's riches, even if her cast was largely unequal to the task. Danielle Preston and Byron Jennings III came off best as the ill starred Esther and George. If Preston ultimately lacked the requisite variety for Esther, she was nonetheless an empathic presence, while Jennings pulled off the very tricky balancing act with deft assurance, giving full value first to the George he wishes us (and Esther) to see and later the man as he really is. Teia Coley was an effective Mayme, desperation hiding tremulously just beneath her façade of eternal sass, and Michelle Henderson, as the uptown matron whose emotional and sexual frustrations lie beneath her growing dependence on Esther, had her moments.
Rodgers, one of the area's most adventuresome directors, staged the piece with brio and invention, erring only in small ways. With her cast arrayed on-stage throughout the evening, it didn't seem necessary to put the stage in blackout whenever her performers shifted furniture, and a crucial attempted kiss was rushed — which may have had more to do with the student actors' reticence about sexuality than directorial lapse. Otherwise, Rodgers' work was probing and true.
A larger problem was the costumes of student designer Julie-Kate Cooper. Since Esther's undergarments are an essential part of Nottage's dramaturgy, they ought to dazzle us as they do her clients. Cooper's work was good, if unexceptional, but some of her fittings were poor, especially for Esther, and very little of it had the necessary "lived-in" look.
Much more effective were the scenic, lighting, and sound designs of Curt Tomczyk, Natasha Bress, and Sabrina Aldridge, respectively. Shifting back projections set not merely scene but mood and history: tenement walls and interiors, shots of the Tenderloin and of Manhattan fabric warehouses or of a tropical coast in the rain. Occasionally when the actors passed by the cyclorama, the photos shimmered and floated like a dream of memory pulsing and dying. Whether this was planned or incidental is unimportant; the effect was lovely. The impressive unit set consisted of rough, unadorned walls and floor and a scrim, accentuated in an uncluttered fashion by period ephemera (a milk-jug, a trunk, a Victrola, an ancient sewing machine) and further transformed by the pleasing simplicity of the performers' re-covering the bed or adding a chair. Rags and Klezmer pieces added unobtrusive veracity, as did recorded crowd sounds, the tinkling of a Pianola tinkling, and distant laughter.
Lynn Nottage writes about sexual and emotional matters between men and women (as well as between women) with a refreshing honesty and maturity — which was more than could be said for a small but obnoxiously vocal segment of Friday night's audience. Every action indicative of eroticism in the production was met with hoots and catcalls, "Ooohs!" of prurient interest or shocked disgust.
Yet another reason to be gloomy.