ATC's 'Intimate Apparel' weaves individual brilliance with uneven execution

Amidst the fleeting national buzz around the Super Bowl and Taylor Swift, remember the ongoing significance of our local culture, starting with the flagship theatrical pride of the Old Pueblo.

Arizona Theatre Company is opening the new year with a potent third installment of an otherwise boilerplate season. “Intimate Apparel” is a riveting script, part of a modern canon that bears the hallmark of an original American voice.

Lynn Nottage spins an eloquent tale about a Black seamstress who plies her humble trade from a Brooklyn boarding house. (A random photograph of Nottage’s great-grandmother, Esther, is the provenance for the playwright’s protagonist, a relic she reportedly discovered while leafing through the pages of an old magazine.)

The play premiered in 2003 and earned its spot among the 40 Best Plays by The Independent, long before the playwright gained widespread acclaim for two Pulitzer Prize-winning heavyweights: “Ruined” (2009) and “Sweat” (2017) — she is the only woman to have won the award for drama twice.

It’s 1905, New York City. Esther crafts elegant undergarments for a diverse clientele, from affluent women to streetwalkers. Rendered with lyrical restraint by Tracey N. Bonner, Esther feels the weight of her solitary existence at 35, dreaming of marriage and subtly channeling her private longings into the creation of sensual lingerie.

A mutual connection leads Esther to written correspondence with George Armstrong (Corey Jones), a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal. Despite never seeing George, Esther consents to marriage, though her heart remains linked to Mr. Marks (Aaron Cammack), a Hasidic shopkeeper from whom she buys her fabric.

While rich in language, the play leans on subtext to explore the deep divide between loneliness and intimacy. Aaron Cammack’s Mr. Marks presents a heart-wrenching portrait of forbidden love. Esther’s marriage to George is equally complex; he is far from the gentleman she knew through their letters, revealing the dichotomy between a romantic ideal and a toxic reality.

“Intimate Apparel” is a snapshot of America’s racist history writ large. Like the late August Wilson, Nottage is a stalwart advocate who calls it out while exposing the country’s class and gender economics. To wit, Esther saves her money, aspiring to open a beauty salon and lavish black women with royal treatment in ways her white patrons enjoy. A black woman’s lot is woefully limited, and saving a meager income is about the only way to get ahead.

The title’s irony reflects the elusive nature of romantic love. That said, Nottage provides the catharsis with the enduring power of sisterhood. 

Because men fail to provide a meaningful connection, the women learn to rely on each other for survival. Sarah Hollis shines as Mayme, a sultry piano player briefly entangled with a philandering George. Saundra McClain as Mrs. Dickson and Dawn Cantwell as Mrs. Van Buren contribute to a refined women’s ensemble, imbuing struggling characters with emotional complexity.

While it’s easy to commend individual performances, I’m loath to admit my growing aversion to a now-common ritual of standing ovations. Technical gaps in production elements are too obvious to ignore.

It’s presumptuous to critique a set design without understanding the collaborative process behind it. Nonetheless, we could do without the extravagant reminder of New York City’s skyline. Alexander Dodge’s loaded cyclorama overshadows a delicate interior and undermines the focal point before us. A tight lighting “special” mitigates the impact, but where it grows to a broader wash, we’re drawn to a separate area we’re supposed to overlook. While that happens, the backdrop always reminds us we’re in New York City — even at the outset, where we must suspend disbelief that George is toiling at the Panama Canal.

Location can trigger a memory, hence my surprise at George Armstrong’s final scene, where he stands on his old platform, furiously demanding entry into Mayme’s room (for a moment, I thought he’d returned to Panama). While composition ultimately falls within a director’s discretion, Oz Scott’s distinguished film and TV career raises a question about how such a background influences his approach to staging in a proscenium setting.

Mr. Scott’s best work is evident in the subtle exchanges between Esther and Mr. Marks: A brief, awkward silence makes its way to customary shop talk, finding just enough space between stolen glances to bask in their mutual appreciation for delicate fabric. (How they caress Japanese silk simulates their unspoken desire to act on natural impulse.)

Conversely, the expected development from Esther’s conflicted domestic life has yet to be fully achieved, leaving her climactic interactions with George much to be desired. In 12-step parlance, we never see her hit rock bottom.

A long-time theatre friend, who saw the production on opening night, shared her thoughts with me the following day, conveying the insight of a seasoned theater artist:

I had fitful dreams of being swallowed by a New York skyline. “Intimate” and “apparel “are packed with meaning and worthy of exploration. I wanted to be wrapped in the fabric of longing, expectation, and heartbreak, to luxuriate in the threads that bind us and feel the pain of their unraveling. I wanted to be moved, and I wasn’t. Except for the relationship between Mr. Marks and Esther, I feel that the ‘intimate apparel’ box was never fully unpacked — and certainly not supported by the scenic elements.

It may not be done unpacking just yet, so get your tickets and go.