Intimate Apparel, written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony nominee Lynn Nottage, is as beautifully woven as the fine fabrics running through the hands of protagonist Esther Mills (Kelly McCreary), a New York City seamstress, circa 1905.
Currently playing at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, the production addresses a litany of complex issues that might have overcrowded a 130-minute play in less worthy hands.
But director Scott Schwartz weaves the most breathtaking piece of theater New Yorkers are likely to find this summer.
Based on the life of Nottage’s grandmother, Apparel follows Esther, an African American who travels to New York to establish her independence and becomes a successful seamstress. She makes lingerie for women of all classes and occupations, from the high-brow (Julia Motyka) to the low-brow, call girl (Shayna Small).
Despite the many individuals who color her life, Esther is lonely. She falls for George, (Edward O’Blenis), a Caribbean laborer on the Panama Canal, who wins her love through poetic letters.
They rush into a marriage that causes Esther to question many facets of her life and the relationships she has fostered as a seamstress. It slowly becomes apparent that her true love is one that is forbidden by her time and place in the world.
It’s no surprise to anyone in the audience that Esther’s husband, George, is not what he first seemed. One of the most finely tuned aspects of this play is the fact that even in the most predictable moments of the plot, there are elements that astound.
The play leaves the audience audibly gasping and sighing throughout Act II. It is so tightly woven and immensely engaging, it would be impossible not to be drawn in by McCreary’s gripping portrayal.
She exhibits the character’s strength and passion for her work with a performance that tugs at the heart in moments both monumental and serene. Every one of her nuances is palpable and natural.
McCreary is a gift to the stage, although she is probably best known for her role as Dr. Maggie Pierce, Meredith Grey’s half-sister, on the ABC drama series, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Each of Apparel’s scenes are labeled with the descriptive title of an item of clothing, a nod to the ways in which Esther’s life can be defined by the pieces she lovingly created.
The only person to speak of her art with an equal passion is a Hasidic shopkeeper, played with phenomenal fervency by Blake DeLong.
Theatergoers who have never touched a needle and thread will remember DeLong’s rhythmical descriptions of fabric and the stories behind each piece that has made its way to his shop.
Motyka’s performance is also a standout; graceful, heartbreaking and humorous all at once. Her character’s conflict and bubbly persona adds depth to the intriguing play.
Apparel boasts its most captivating “characters” in the sets and costumes. They truly have their own personas and inspire the same number of grand gasps as the surprises in the plot.
Jeff Cowie has designed a set that is comprised of a seemingly simple bed that transforms effortlessly to reflect the wealth and character of its inhabitants.
The pops of color he provides are intense and rich, from Mr. Marks’ shop to the stunning reds and golds of prostitute Mayme’s bedroom,
Emilio Sosa’s costumes are stunning examples of the period and reflect the enthusiasm behind their creations.
Never before has a fitted-suit held such meaning, nor has an electric blue smoking jacket and beaded pastel bodice elicited so much emotion from both their occupants and their audiences.
Nottage’s lyrical words coupled with Michael Holland’s gorgeous tunes, marking tone and set changes, are exquisite.
Director Schwartz, who is also Bay Street Theater’s Artistic Director, has the audience literally enveloped in the story, as George “speaks” his letters to Esther from all aisles of the theatre.
His construction of Apparel is masterful. The play’s many questions about the definitions of marriage, wealth, happiness, femininity and courage are unraveled with gentility and poignancy.
Theatre doesn’t get more intimate and visceral than this exquisite production, a summer treat that audiences will want to wrap themselves in repeatedly with the delicate touch of their own favorite intimate apparel.
The play had its world premiere at Center Stage in Baltimore, Md. in 2003 and has been a staple of regional theater ever since.
The play opened Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City a year later.
For more information about Intimate Apparel, which runs through July 30, visit Bay Street or call the box office at 631-725-9500.