- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Call it "The Triumph of the Plain Women." First, there was Lizzie settling into her own self-worth in Signature Theatre's warmly rewarding production of the musical "110 in the Shade."
Her counterpart at Baltimore's Center Stage is Esther (Shane Williams), a gifted black seamstress in 1905 Manhattan whose features are as ordinary as her needlework is exquisite. At the age of 35, she fears going through life with her arms clasped around a bolt of fabric rather than a husband.
Lynn Nottage's delicately wrought but surprisingly strong new play, "Intimate Apparel," centers on the duality of Esther's nature: On the job, she is confident, practical and accomplished, yet her heart is a tangle of low self-image, pity and low-burning anger.
Esther's romantic dreams are fueled by swoony letters from George Armstrong (Kevin Jackson), a worker on the Panama Canal from Barbados. Really, you cannot help but fall in love a little bit yourself with George, as played by Mr. Jackson with a beguiling mix of humility and bravado.
In director Kate Whoriskey's sensitive production, this proletarian poet appears in a warm pool of light. His hands may be calloused, but his soul pours forth a torrent of fine language. But is he too good to be true? It's a question as timely as Internet dating: How many find their "soul mates" in cyberspace only to realize that this intimacy is too fragile to survive in the real world?
As a maker of lingerie, Esther specializes in the art of seduction, whether it is crafting corsets to seize the interest of the husband of socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Sue Cremin) or sewing up naughty outfits to entice the customers of prostitute Mayme (Erica Gimpel).
It is ironic that someone as prim and stiff-backed as Esther works with lace, whalebone, satin and silk materials that plump the bosom, whittle the waist and accentuate the derriere, in short, shape a woman's body in ways that are conventionally pleasing to a man.
Although she tells herself she's just doing her job, Esther's latent creativity is expressed in her love of fabric: The drape of silk is like a caress to her, and she runs lace through her hands as if it is a lover's hair. In scenes of burnished, unspoken sexual tension, Esther shares her sensuous side with Mr. Marks (Steven Goldstein), a Jewish fabric merchant equally in love with cloth and workmanship.
Costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Walt Spangler further reinforce the tingle that textiles can elicit. Miss Zuber has designed clothes so impeccably tailored and molded to the individual body that you want to go home and burn all of your ready-to-wear. Mr. Spangler's set features billows of creamy silk, corsets hanging from the ceiling and reams of different fabrics you want to reach out and stroke.
Yet this play is about more than intimate apparel; it is about intimate thoughts.
The attention-starved Mrs. Van Buren tells things to Esther in her boudoir that she would never tell another soul. In Esther's presence, too, Mayme, the prostitute, is more naive schoolgirl than sex object. There is an incredible intimacy to Esther's work: These are the garments her customers wear closest to their bodies, next to their bare skin.
You can imagine the rush of feelings when Esther finally gets to work on her own wedding corset, an intricately embroidered piece that is both graceful and alluring. When she stands expectantly before George in this gorgeous lingerie, however, he, a virtual stranger, fails to appreciate the craftsmanship, pawing the silk during a wedding night of clumsiness and missed signals.
That someone as smart as Esther would pin all her fantasies on one ordinary man seems foolish but all too familiar. Just as the play seems to be veering into melodramatic territory when George turns out to be a knight in tarnished armor, Miss Nottage corrects course. Sitting by her trusty sewing machine, surrounded by the people whose lives she has touched, Esther finally has a sense of her power.
"Intimate Apparel" dwells in the frilly world of beauty, fashion and "womanly wiles," yet the performances are deeply grounded. Miss Williams is a revelation as the serious-minded and practical Esther. She may be buttoned up, but she still exposes an astonishing amount of emotional nakedness through her gestures and nuances.
Miss Nottage's play shows us that all the lacy lingerie in the world won't help a woman if she insists on defining herself by whether or not she has a man.

***
WHAT: "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage
WHERE: Head Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 30.
TICKETS: $25 to $45
PHONE: 410/332-0033
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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