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Lives hanging by a thread

Viola Davis' quiet dignity holds 'Intimate Apparel' together.

August 06, 2004|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

In 1905 New York City, an African American seamstress spends hour after hour at a sewing machine to make gorgeous garments for her clients, while she wears plain, inexpensive clothes. "I been working since I was 9 years old," 35-year-old Esther Mills recalls, "with barely a day's rest."

Down in Panama, George Armstrong risks death daily to help dig the canal that will become an engineering marvel and an economic engine. "But when the great oceans meet and the gentlemen celebrate," he wonders, "will we colored men be given glasses to raise?"

History is written by people like Esther and George, though the credit usually goes to statesmen and investors. In writing her play "Intimate Apparel" -- now at the Mark Taper Forum as the final production of its season -- Lynn Nottage has said that she set out to reclaim the stories of people like her great-grandmother, whose life she has been able to imagine only from photographs and the knowledge that this ancestor was a seamstress who created intimate apparel for women.

Nottage's play premiered to admiring reviews in spring 2003 at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory, which co-commissioned it. This spring, it drew raves in a production by New York's Roundabout Theatre directed by Daniel Sullivan, known for staging new works by the likes of Wendy Wasserstein and Donald Margulies, and starring Viola Davis, a Tony Award-winner for August Wilson's "King Hedley II" and a recognizable face from such screen projects as "Antwone Fisher." It is Sullivan's exquisitely rendered and deeply felt staging that has brought the play back to the Southland.

Davis' portrayal will surely be counted among the year's most gratifying performances. A hard-working, churchgoing woman who claims not to expect much from life, Esther faces the world with eyes downcast, shoulders hunched and arms held protectively over her torso. Her voice is high and soft, as though she's trying to avoid offending anyone's ears. Yet a kind word or a joke can, out of the blue, elicit from her a big, toothy smile. The feel of a fine fabric causes her body to melt and her face to go soft with almost ecstatic pleasure.

A country girl from North Carolina transplanted to the big, uncaring city, Esther has spent 18 years in a rooming house alone with her sewing machine. Thinking herself ill-featured, she despairs of ever finding a husband. It seems a stroke of luck, then, when George (Russell Hornsby), a Barbadian who has heard about her from a canal co-worker, begins a correspondence.

While they attempt to connect long-distance, Esther faces the daily challenge of attempting to connect with fellow Americans across social, ethnic and religious lines. As a seamstress whose gorgeously detailed undergarments have earned widespread appreciation, she is uniquely positioned to cross into realms that wouldn't otherwise be open to her: the Fifth Avenue mansion of a radiant but unhappy society lady (Arija Bareikis), the ostentatious boudoir of a pragmatic prostitute (Lauren Velez) and the Orchard Street tenement room of a Jewish fabric merchant (Corey Stoll). Esther's own spare but homey surroundings are overseen by a busybody landlady (Lynda Gravatt) who married into the middle class.

The set design, by Derek McLane, facilitates smooth passage among these worlds by sending the status-coded furnishings gliding in from the sides, popping up through the floor or descending from the rafters. (At Wednesday's press performance, a recalcitrant mechanism caused a several-minute delay in the action, but the actors picked up again with such assuredness that the incident was soon forgotten.)

Catherine Zuber's costumes -- a show in themselves -- subtly emphasize that Esther's customers get to be exotic flowers while she, in her shapeless earth-toned dresses, tends the soil from which they grow.

After a deftly structured first act, "Intimate Apparel" takes an unfortunate turn toward contrivance in the second. Still, its language is a thing of beauty, at times approaching poetry, much like the dialogue in "Crumbs From the Table of Joy," the work for which Nottage was best known before "Intimate Apparel."

Glibly put, "Intimate Apparel" is about the fabric of America as it is endlessly stitched together, ripped apart and stitched together again. That metaphor may seem too easy, but this is a nation that professes to offer opportunity to all yet withholds it from some. The play is a story about citizens grabbing for the same crust of bread, occasionally pulling nourishment from one another's mouths. It is a parable about sweet dreams and honeyed words that, in an instant, can turn sour.

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