If you saw By the Way, Meet Vera Stark last year at Illinois State University, you know that playwright Lynn Nottage + director Don LaCasse + actor Faith Servant adds up to some fine theatre. The team is back, this time at Heartland Theatre, with Intimate Apparel, a different kind of Nottage play.
Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize, for Ruined, her emotional and dramatic look at women abused and "ruined" by war in the Congo, plus a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur "genius" grant, along with a host of other awards and fellowships. Her voice as a playwright is distinctive but also versatile, ranging from the Alice Down the Rabbit Hole modern-day stylings of Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, produced locally by New Route Theatre; Crumbs from the Table of Joy, a family drama set in the 1950s that has been compared to The Glass Menagerie and A Raisin in the Sun; the afore-mentioned Vera Stark, a fun and irreverent look at what it meant to be black and talented in Old Hollywood; and Intimate Apparel, probably her most-produced play, which focuses on an African-American woman in a different historical period.
Intimate Apparel's Off-Broadway production at the Roundabout Theatre starred Viola Davis and took home Obie, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Davis, with another Outer Critics Circle win for the play itself, an Obie for Derek McLane's set, Lucille Lortel Awards for set and costumes, and a half dozen nominations in other categories.
Its action is set in 1905, a time when a talented seamstress like Esther -- more of an artist than a tradeswoman when it comes to the beautiful lingerie she creates -- can scratch out a small place for herself in New York City, even as she cruises past the far side of 30 unmarried and on her own. Yes, the lace and silk confections she sews are popular with both sides of the street, with white society ladies and juke-joint African-American women alike. But Esther wants more than dressing up other people in sexy underthings. She wants love, romance, intimacy... Maybe even the respectable marriage her landlady keeps pushing.
In Nottage's script, Esther comes into contact with people outside her own small circle, from a sympathetic fabric merchant who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, an African-American prostitute, a wealthy white woman trapped in a stultifying marriage, and a pen pal halfway across the world. The pen pal, a working man in Barbados who's worked on the Panama Canal, is the source of much of Intimate Apparel's drama. Is he the man Esther sees in his letters? Can he be what she needs?
For director Don LaCasse, Faith Servant, a third-year MFA candidate in acting at ISU, will take on Esther. Servant played the glamorous maid-turned-actress Vera Stark last year; Esther Mills is more real, less sparkly, but definitely a showcase for an actress. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with some of Bloomington-Normal's best actors, including Fania Bourn, seen last year in New Route Theatre's powerful production of The Mountaintop; Rhys Lovell, Heartland's Artistic Director who can always be counted on for first-rate performances; Elante Richardson, seen on stage at ISU in Happy Endings and Day of Absence; Jennifer Rusk, who made a vivid impression in Community Players' Hairspray and as Eliza Esque with Illinois Voices Theatre; and Megan Tennis, who went from ISU's Pride and Prejudice last spring to Brighton Beach Memoirs a few months ago.
Rusk will portray Mrs. Dickson, Esther's respectable landlady and confidante, with Bourn as Mayme, a prostitute who buys garments from Esther, Tennis as Mrs. Van Buren, Mayme's society counterpart, Lovell as Mr. Marks, the Jewish merchant, and Richardson as George, the mystery man from Barbados.
Intimate Apparel is a beautiful play -- a real standout even on Lynn Nottage's outstanding resume -- and its issues of aspiration, longing and loneliness should resonate with almost everyone. If you'd like to read more about Nottage, try this piece in The Guardian or this Interval interview.
Intimate Apparel opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre with a special 7:30 pm "Pay What You Can Preview," followed by evening performances on November 6 and 7; 12, 13 and 14; and 19, 20 and 21; and matinees at 2 pm on November 15 and 22. For reservation information, click here. For a list of performance dates and times, click here.