Chicago Theater Review: INTIMATE APPAREL (Eclipse)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 21, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


There’s no doubt why Lynn Nottage’s drama won five national awards for best play, including the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and American Theatre Critics Association’s Primus Award. Nine years ago we saw the cause in Jessica Thebus’ Steppenwolf staging, a perfect marriage of inspired script and elegant production. Eclipse Theatre Company, which has dedicated its entire season to the rich works of this bold writer, triggers just as many truths in its Athenaeum Theatre revival, warmly shaped and fully delivered by Steve Scott.

Kelly Owens and Skye Shrum in Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL by Eclipse Theatre in Chicago.This bittersweet time trip focuses on a spinster who, considering the man who makes her miserable, deserves better. Like many women, considering the alternative, she’s better off doing without. No man beats a bad one.

Compassionately shaped in words and movement, Intimate Apparel (the wonderful name suggesting the play’s secrets as well as the heroine’s occupation) delivers a fully-felt cross-section of life in New York City circa 1905. Each of these six souls is so warmly realized that we feel we can walk around in their period settings (cleverly fused onto the small stage by designer Kevin Hagan). They fit their clothes (wonderfully wrought by Rachel Lambert) as much as their parts. It’s hard to imagine anything otherwise in this inevitable recreation.

Kelly Owens and Eustace Allen in Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL by Eclipse Theatre in Chicago.As the title suggests, clothes play a big part in this generous play. Based on the author’s great-grandmother, Esther Mills (an awesomely affecting Kelly Owens, strongly recalling the late Ruby Dee) is a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who’s running low on hope. Esther’s elegant sewing and exquisite corsets and lingerie gain her entry to more than just the boarding house where she occupies an attic room and receives sage advice from matronly confidante Mrs. Dickson (earth-maternal Frances Wilkerson). Indomitable Esther serves two very different clients–the sex-loving, man-wary Harlem prostitute Mayme (Ebony Joy, living up to her name) and Mrs. Van Buren (a capriciously patrician Skye Shrum), an opium-sniffing, Upper West Side white entertainer with a failed marriage and a secret longing.

Esther’s improbable secret admirer is Garment District entrepreneur Mr. Marks (Eustace Allen in a delicately detailed performance full of burrowed longing and textured loneliness). Under Esther’s enthusiastic influence, this Jewish fabric merchant develops a love for color that defies his Orthodox prudery. Fate and circumstances altering completely, he might have been Esther’s ideal helpmate. The Kelly Owens and Ebony Joy in Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL by Eclipse Theatre in Chicago.fact that she guesses as much is one more sterling sadness in a character drama more about what might have been than what we see and know.

But Esther has all but abandoned love: Her one remaining dream is to buy a beauty parlor. (Afraid of the big city’s nameless perils, Esther keeps her savings sewed up in a crazy quilt.) But, as fate and Nottage would have it, Esther has a not so secret admirer, a potent stranger who changes both everything and nothing. While toiling on the Panama Canal, a sturdy construction worker named George Armstrong (sensuous Brandon Greenhouse) becomes Esther’s Caribbean suitor, wooing her with gorgeous letters–until he finally proposes to the unseen lady, then journeys to New York to marry her.

The fact that the letters they exchange are not original with the senders is the first misleading misstep in a chain of sorrows. An unearned sense of entitlement ill equips George for life in predatory Gotham. (His pipe dream of success with a stable—arriving when the horseless carriage has arrived–strongly recalls Walter Jr.’s equally doomed dream of a ghetto liquor store in A Raisin in the Sun.)

Kelly Owens and Brandon Greenhouse in Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL by Eclipse Theatre in Chicago.In a familiar picture of heartache and stupidity, newlyweds Esther and George manage to dump on each other’s dreams, over and over. The rest of the two-act tale–Nottage’s imaginative reconstruction of her great grandmother’s unknown marriage based on a mutual deception–won’t be divulged. In any case it’s fueled more by richly-dimensional characters than by any purposeful or predictable plotting. The play is as fragile and winsome as the ragtime ballads that Mayme pounds out on her upright piano. It’s also as tough as its portrait of the untapped talent in Nottage’s four vibrant women and the frustrated love in her two secretive men.

photos by Tim Knight

Intimate Apparel
Eclipse Theatre
The Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 3
2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:00
scheduled to end on August 24, 2014
for tickets, call 773-935-6875 or visit

for info on other Chicago Theater, visit

Stage and Cinema’s review of Intimate Apparel at The Pasadena Playhouse.

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