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One could think the play Intimate Apparel at Northlight Theatre is about a Black seamstress who makes intimate apparel for wealthy white clients, but it is about so much more.
The sewing that goes on is the intimate putting together of a social fabric that addresses the question: Can you be what you aren’t to get what you wish for?
The answer changes throughout the play (which closes May 15 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie), but one thing is constant. The acting is exquisite, a theatrical pleasure. And quite an accomplishment considering the relationships of the characters to Esther, the gentle and innocent 35-year-old seamstress, are all unlikely and unexpectedly intimate.
Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has a difficult role. She needs to appeal to all the characters of different races and different backgrounds and the audience needs to accept her relationships. Langford lets us feel her innocence and her vulnerability.
Mrs. Dickson (Felicia P. Fields) rents Esther a room that comes with free and mostly unwelcome advice: “Talk and a nickel will buy you 5 cents of trouble,” she tells Esther. Fields plays her role with a mix of motherly attention and harsh doses of reality. When Esther asks her why she puts up with her ne’er-do-well husband, she tells her, “I forgive him his infatuation with opiates because he has this rooming house.”
Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), a white, wealthy and unhappily married client confides in Esther more than Esther bargains for. Spence, most often seen in a flamboyant corset created by Esther, carries off her wish to be sexy with a desperation that invites sympathy and exposes racial insensitivity.
Mayme (Rashada Dawan) is the prostitute who teachers Esther more about life than she wants to know. Dawan’s flamboyance fills the stage with exuberance and an inevitable dose of reality.
Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato), the orthodox Jewish fabric merchant, is the only one based on common passions, which are hopelessly impossible to fulfill because of who they both are. He loves beautiful fabric, as does Esther, but he tells her, “I wear the black cloth of my father’s suit [instead of the beautiful fabric he loves and sells] to keep my relationship with my ancestors.” Fortunato is the master of gesture. He plays such a gentle soul.
George (Al’Jaleel McGhee), is the wished-for lover who changes Esther’s life as well as the innocent nature of the play. McGhee is a believable conniver and a lying villain. He needs to be both if the changing tenor of the play from innocence to disappointment to betrayal makes seamless and believable shifts.
If there is any criticism at all to be made about this production, it is the script, set in 1905 but written 18 years ago. Some parts are a bit long, maybe a result of an older play being adapted for a different time and different contemporary audience. Cynicism is more prevalent now and some of the naïve beliefs and innocent conversations of the characters don’t suit the intricacies and dynamics of the relationships. On the other hand, maybe it’s not a bad idea to have some sweetness dilute cynicism.
Without question, Intimate Apparel is a recommended production. It is moving, engaging and sensitive. It poses the question can you be what you aren’t to get what you wish. The answers will stay with the audience for a good while.
The actors deserve the standing ovations they have been receiving. The show closes May 15 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Northlight requires all patrons to wear masks and to provide evidence of vaccinations or recent negative COVID-19 tests. Tickets ($30-$85, with $15 student seats) can be purchased through Northlight’s website or by calling the box office: 847-673-6300.