Intimate Apparel, Lynn Nottage’s heartbreaking chamber play, returns to New York as a resplendent opera that magnifies the scale of the original without losing its razor-sharp critique of the toll that women pay for unequal relationships.
What is most remarkable about the new production, which is presented at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is that it continues to function as a play. There is no flattening of nuance or emotion, as can often happen when properties are given the operatic treatment.
This is likely thanks in large part to Nottage ― who has adapted her own text for the new libretto ― as well as her partnership with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, director Bartlett Sher, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and choreographer Dianne McIntyre, in bringing the story to life.
Intimate Apparel follows Esther Mills (Kearstin Piper Brown), a Black seamstress on the verge of becoming an “old maid” in 1905 Manhattan. Esther dreams of opening her own beauty parlor that caters to other Black women and starting a loving family, and the plot kicks into high gear when she begins a written correspondence with George Armstrong (Justin Austin), a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal.
Esther is illiterate and turns to her wealthiest patron, Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell), to decipher and respond to each loving missive. What is merely a game for Van Buren fills Esther with hope that she will find a love to let her escape her doldrums. After George proposes marriage, Esther accepts, sight unseen, despite warnings from her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich) that this peculiar arrangement will leave her dejected.
True to that prophecy, upon finally meeting on their wedding day, Esther learns that Armstrong is not the gallant man of his letters, just as she is not the fair maiden of hers. From there, their collective dreams begin to unravel as their inability to accept each other’s true selves takes its toll.
With Intimate Apparel, Nottage reveals a brutal critique of the limitations the world places on women as well as the way they contort themselves to fit a societal mold ― even when they have desires and plans of their own. Each woman within the play has a unique inner life that is impossible to fulfill without severe compromise.
We see this during landlady Mrs. Dickson’s powerful warning to Esther, that she’s forsaking love in favor of security. In her role as a woman who has seen both sides of love, Danrich pierces one’s heart as Dickson when she shapes her lush voice into a near howl of anguish: Unlike Mrs. Dickson’s mother, who worked her hands bloody, Mrs. Dickson has magnificent hands ― but nothing warm to hold on to.
Brown brings Esther’s deepest yearnings to life with a warm soprano that continues to blossom, most particularly when she pleads for the love she deserves. Brown’s performance is much like Zuber’s magnificent costumes: contained and lovely, but even more magnificent once the top layers are removed to reveal the intricate undergirding below.
As George, Austin completes a full 180-degree transformation from the upright seeker of love that Esther dreams of in her letters into the lumbering, gambling “Bajan” boy who refuses to love her. When he sings that she’d be prettier with a little bit of lipstick, Austin beautifully inserts a level of coaxing and soothing into his voice that reveals Nottage’s ultimate point: Much like Viola Davis, who won the 2004 Drama Desk Award for Best Actress for her performance in the play’s premiere, Brown is beautiful with or without makeup.
But in this society, women who refuse to doll themselves up are considered ugly. It does not matter how hard they work or how generous they are; the world will not see women if they are unadorned and will ignore what lies below the glittering facade if they are.
Gordon’s music reveals the tragedy of that reality perfectly. Though he is renowned for his delirious art songs, with Intimate Apparel, he has restrained his typical flights of fancy so the sophistication of Nottage’s vision takes precedence.
It’s no secret that in most operas, the music is what matters most. Here, rather than bursts of notes that show nothing more than technique, Gordon’s passages accentuate the storytelling, much like Esther’s designs flatter the forms of her customers.
The show makes use of numerous technical elements ― including McIntyre’s authentic, high-stepping dances, Jennifer Tipton’s always expert lighting, Michael Yeargan’s rotating set, and 59 Projections’s visuals ― Sher’s direction shapesthem into a wonderful vision of soaring dreams brought down to reality.
What could have been an unwieldy feast of technical wonder has coalesced into a challenge to the world: Opera demands true storytelling, and when wedded with wonderful acting and directorial vision as it is here, the results are equal to and possibly greater than any play.
Photo credit: Kearstin Piper Brown and Justin Austin in Intimate Apparel. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)