Perhaps the Saint Louis Black Repertory Company might have persuaded Victoria's Secret to sponsor its production of Intimate Apparel. That would have been more thematically appropriate than the official sponsor, Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Set in 1905 New York, the award-winning play tells the story of 35-year-old Esther (Linda Kennedy), who makes a living creating interesting underwear for ladies on both sides of the street. Costume designer Reggie Ray's shimmering corsets create an eye-popping good time for the audience, while a trio of unexpected romantic encounters create turmoil in Esther's life.
Plain-Jane Esther first encounters romance through a pen-pal relationship with George (Erik Kilpatrick), a Jamaican who's working on the Panama Canal. In scenes reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, illiterate Esther gets letter-writing help from a client and a friend: rich society lady Mrs. Van Buren, played by Erin Kelley; and prostitute Mayme, portrayed by Thyais Walsh. As Van Buren, Kelley moves deftly between comic and serious moments, fashioning an intriguing character who provides a surprising romantic possibility for Esther later in the play. Walsh brings bite to her portrayal of Mayme but is hindered by having to pretend to play the piano in several scenes -- an obvious bit of stage trickery that draws attention away from the otherwise realistic world of the play. Set designer Felix Cochran places Mayme's and Van Buren's bedrooms on opposite sides of Esther's center-stage room, framing Esther's ordinary life with their extreme lifestyles.
Sultry Caribbean music, courtesy of sound designer Todd Reishman, underscores the reading of George's flowery letters. His eventual proposal of marriage is met with delight by the female trio and disapproval by Esther's landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Starletta DuPois). Kilpatrick imbues George with charm and innocence -- at first. The wedding-night scene is full of delightful stops and starts, and it seems possible that Esther's hopes for true love may be fulfilled. But George quickly begins to sound like Walter Lee from A Raisin in the Sun -- he pins his dreams on a scheme of buying draft horses and wants Esther to give him her life savings so he can be "a man" and have his own business. George begins paying regular visits to Mayme, and even as Esther comprehends his betrayal, she tries to hold on to her dreams of romance. Predictably, love ends badly for all the women.
If that were the entire plot, Intimate Apparel would be interesting but not unique. What playwright Lynn Nottage smartly adds is the character of Mr. Marks (Alan Knoll), an Orthodox Jew who sells Esther imported fabrics. Their warm friendship grows into a sexual attraction that is palpable; their desires are unspoken but clearly felt. The chemistry between Knoll and Kennedy is outstanding, and the playwright is at her best with their lean but loaded dialogue. While other characters are given long speeches filled with often unnecessary details about their past, all it takes to impart the significance of Marks' culture is his intonation of the poetic phrase, "I wear my father's coat."
The complex relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans touched on in Intimate Apparel will be explored more fully in a just-announced collaborative project between the Black Rep and HotCity Theatre. The recent Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, which examines the relationships between a white Jewish family and the poor black family of their maid will be the final production of HotCity's 2005 season (opening November 17) and the opening production of the Black Rep's 2006 season (opening January 4).
Meantime, Intimate Apparel closes the Black Rep's 2005 season, a season that eschewed lighter fare and musicals and featured the company's first Shakespeare production. This final presentation is a model of the sort of thought-provoking theater artistic director Ron Himes is trying to cultivate. While not perfect as a script or a production, the lingerie-laden Intimate is a prime example of theater that's both entertaining and intelligent.