Silver Spring Stage (SSS) has secured a reputation for presenting plays other area theater companies rarely – if ever – produce. Its current production, “Intimate Apparel,” which won 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle awards, is one such work. Its playwright Lynn Nottage is the only woman who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
The play centers on Esther, an African American woman in 1905 New York who is lonely and looking for love — which eludes her. Despite the segregated world, Esther has some degree of success because she is a capable seamstress, but she dreams of opening her own beauty parlor.
Falling in love with a man named George via letters, Esther finds him disappointing in real life. They marry, but he leaves her. Esther had longed for a relationship with Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jew who provides her with fabric for her work and with whom she shares a love of the tactile sense. While he reciprocates her feelings, both realize societal rules make a relationship between them impossible.
The play’s title is a double entendre, referring both to the corsets and lingerie Esther creates and to the desire of the characters to find people with whom they can be their true selves.
“I’m really excited the Stage can present this wonderfully diverse play,” said Seth Ghitelman, the show’s producer and director. “Everyone gets a chance to tell their story.”
Ghitelman first saw “Intimate Apparel” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “I had no background about the play, no expectations, and was blown away,” he said. “It had a wonderful story arc about people striving for something.”
In contrast to Ghitelman, Assistant Director Yvonne Paretzky was very familiar with the play. Previously, she had an acting role in a production and directed a staged reading at The Actors’ Center. “I love the play,” she said. “It tells the story of immigrants from all types of places, with their financial, emotional and family problems. Mr. Marks honors his traditions, which both comfort and strangle him. Mayme, Esther’s friend, wanted to be a concert pianist, but her father didn’t approve of music, and she ended up a prostitute. Then there’s George, a black man held back.”
Christine M. Champion, who appeared in a previous SSS production, read “Intimate Apparel” about five years ago and “loved” it. “It’s so relatable across the board. Everyone wants to be loved. But Esther learns that first, you have to love yourself,” she said.
The play is also relatable because Esther is initially unsure of herself, believing she is unattractive, Champion said. “She’s jealous of Mamie, who has lighter skin and is beautiful. But Mayme is jealous of Esther’s moral fiber, and Mr. Marks said when he doesn’t see Esther, he misses her smile,” which is powerful.
The episodic nature of “Intimate Apparel” is challenging to stage, with some short scenes only a page or two, noted Ghitelman. That structure as well as the fact the play calls for many pieces of furniture and props convinced him to keep everything on stage throughout the production.
In what is a first for SSS, Ghitelman enlisted intimacy choreographer Emily Sucher to facilitate scenes involving physical touch. She helped choreograph the wedding night scene between George and Esther, to which each brings different expectations, and the groom might seem “sexually threatening,” Ghitelman said.
Nottage is said to have based the play on a photograph of her great-grandmother looking unhappy. “It’s a beautiful play, with a lot of layers,” said Paretzky. “Seeing it once is not enough. There are no wasted words; it’s really a joy, because Nottage uses them carefully.”
“Intimate Apparel,” with its comic and bittersweet elements, will soon be turned into an opera, with Nottage writing the libretto. It will take the stage of Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in February.
“Intimate Apparel” performances start at 8 p.m. Fridays, July 12 and 19, and Saturdays, July 13 and 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14 at Silver Spring Stage, Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For tickets, $22 and $25, call 301-593-6036 or visit www.ssstage.org.