‘Apparel’ an intimate look at the search for independence

The Gainesville Community Playhouse production of “Intimate Apparel” with, from left, Kim Huebner as Mrs. Van Buren and Amanda Edwards as Esther, opens Friday at the Vam York Theater. (JACOB ROMOSER/CORRESPONDENT)

Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 1:46 p.m.

Just as the corsets Esther Mills creates constrict and bind the female form, the unmarried African-American seamstress in 1905 is bound by her own desires and inhibitions in “Intimate Apparel,” which opens Friday at the Gainesville Community Playhouse.


‘Intimate Apparel’

What: Gainesville Community Playhouse production of Lynn Nottage’s play about an African-American seamstress in 1905 who moves to New York City in search of her independence.
When: Previews at 8 tonight, opens Friday and runs 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 12.
Where: Vam York Theater, 4039 NW 16th Blvd., next to the Millhopper Publix.
Tickets: $16, $10 for students with ID beginning one hour before showtime, $10 for seniors for Sunday’s performance only; $5 for all seats for tonight’s preview.
Info: 376-4949 or www.gcplayhouse.org

As the leading female character of “Intimate Apparel,” Esther is a strong, single 35-year-old with her own business making lingerie in New York at the turn of the 20th century.

“It's a universal story, even though it's told from the perspective of an African-American female,” says Rhonda Wilson, the play's director.

Like those before her and those after in the history of time, Esther struggles with the rules set by herself and society. She dreams of opening a beauty parlor and won't settle for a relationship offering anything less than love.

“Esther is a hard-working, kind-hearted, good-natured woman,” says Amanda Edwards, who plays Esther. “She has goals and ambitions for herself,” yet at the same time “has a storybook fantasy idea of getting swept off her feet,” Edwards says.

Esther's clients are from opposite ends of the social spectrum but both divulge their secrets to her. One is a wealthy socialite who has trouble at home; another is a prostitute who is skilled at the piano but won't leave the saloon. Esther's motherly landlady, Mrs. Dickson, is open about her life and is the only woman who does not wear a corset.

Life makes a turn when Esther receives letters from George, a Caribbean man working in Panama. She gets others to read them to her and Mrs. Van Buren writes the responses for Esther. Their correspondence becomes more intense, stirring up her hopes.

Meanwhile there is a mutual spark between Esther and a Jewish tailor named Mr. Marks, whom she buys cloth from, but both know that a relationship between them would be frowned upon.

“Over time they realize that their passion extends past just that of fabric,” says Nicholas May, who plays Mr. Marks. “Because of the time and all these boundaries and invisible borders in society you cant really act on that.”

“They don't feel that they can act upon what is really there for them to act upon, which is to be that person that they really want to be with,” adds Steve Butler, assistant director of the play.

The stage is set with faux brick walls and old wallpaper and three layers of stages for everything to happen at once. There are no blackouts; no scene changes. The lives of the different characters happen at the same time and can be seen at once. Esther's bed is center stage as she is the center of the overlapping stories.

“It needs to flow because the life flows,” Wilson says. “That's just the nature of this show.”

While the play offers something to take away from every character's story, Esther's story is at the center. She is the only character that interacts with all the others.

“You're looking at the intimate details of people's lives,” Wilson says. “You are looking into their bedrooms, into their houses, the things they don't share on the outside.”

Using such universal themes should bode well for the play, which was written by New York playwright Lynn Nottage and premiered in 2003, Wilson says. “I think it can be a new classic,” she says.

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