REVIEW: Intimate moments make for compelling drama in TheatreSquared’s new offering “Intimate Apparel”

Photo: Wesley Hitt / TheatreSquared

The small things, when added together, become the big thing. How else could we have so much sexual tension in a shared cup of tea? Or such heartbreak in a husband ignoring his wife when she gushes out about the quality and texture of a piece of fabric?

These intimate moments are among those in a series of intimate moments in Lynn Nottage‘s “Intimate Apparel,” on stage in Fayetteville now through April 16 courtesy of TheatreSquared.

What: TheatreSquared’s “Initmate Apparel”
When: Wed-Sun through April 16
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $15-$45
Information: 479-443-5600 or

The play transports us from a low-rent boarding house in New York City, where Esther Mills sews the titular intimate apparel for wealthy clients; to a brothel, where Esther’s best fried Mayme practices the world’s oldest profession; to a fabric shop, where Mr. Marks sells the finest cloth he can acquire; and to Panama, where canal worker George fights risk of death and loneliness. We make these moves intuitively, and with the help of the character’s accents, rather than moving set pieces.

We don’t need those overt visual cues because the Pulitzer and Obie prize winning playwright’s poetic dialogue takes us places. It also takes us into some uncomfortable realities, set against the backdrop of racial and religious tensions in early 20th Century New York that could just as easily be early 21st Century anywhere.

Esther, having just turned 35, has an admirable independent streak but still frets that her single life isn’t the one she wants. When she begins receiving written correspondence from George, she smells the letters for hints of Panamanian mud and mangoes and ponders a life with a man she’s never met. 

But everyone in “Intimate Apparel” carries secrets. Esther uses her discretion when creating garments for her clients. She also has a stash of cash sewn into the lining of her blanket to provide herself a future. Mayme does not care about the names and lives of those who hire her. She keeps their secrets safe from their families at home. Mr. Marks is pledged to be married to a woman in Romania he has never met. And, when we finally meet him in the flesh, George’s coarseness is a departure from the flowing language and declarations of love contained in his letters.

Photo: Wesley Hitt / TheatreSquared

When exposed, these secrets come crashing together in ugly, important and emotional ways, even if some of the plot drivers were easy enough to predict.

But even if you correctly predict a freight train is coming to hit you, it still wounds you (or worse) at impact. And with all necessary compliments toward Nottage’s script considered, that’s also a function of convincing acting. Britney Walker-Merritte, in her leading role as Esther, brings a certain charm and quirkiness to her character. Her scenes with Mr. Marks (played by Jason M. Shipman) are particularly impactful and heart wrenching. All the performances and affectations and accents were convincing.

Stylistically, there were a few elements I didn’t understand, particularly in the device used to close both acts of this 145-minute play. I won’t share it in case there’s a plot element contained there that I missed. But these are quibbles with a powerful production, certainly the best offering from T2 among its last four or five shows.
“Intimate Apparel” does indeed have us look at intimate moments, and the vulnerabilities – for better and for worse – when we choose to disclose them. We can at least trust ourselves.