Erica Gimpel and Shané Williamsin Intimate Apparel(Photo: © Richard Anderson)
Erica Gimpel and Shané Williams
in Intimate Apparel
(Photo: © Richard Anderson)
Dreams die hard in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, a turn-of-the-century drama just unveiled at Baltimore's Center Stage during the company's 40th anniversary season. As long as those hopes survive, however elusive, they are as elegant and as well-appointed as the undergarment that is the play's centerpiece -- one sample wrapped around the central character and others arranged on dress forms floating above the stage.

Filtering aspects of the African-American experience through an O. Henry sensibility, Nottage has written a piece that is dappled by familiar plot turns found in dozens of tales of marriages arranged blindly across miles and oceans. She uses a wedding corset as the central metaphor of her play, which unfolds on the gentle slope of the theater's rectangular thrust stage. The vast space is dotted here and there with objects that hint of a certain venue: a sewing machine, a saloon piano, a bed that doubles as a manufacturer's workbench, a chest, and a small desk.

Esther Mills, a 35-year-old spinster, is sewing feverishly as the play opens. It's 1905. A skilled seamstress who prepares exquisite corsets for brides, Esther lives and works in a New York City boarding house. Independent and feisty to a degree, she nevertheless shudders when she considers the unmarried existence that lies before her. Her tightly knit support system includes Mrs. Van Buren, a childless socialite trophy wife; Mayme, a bright and artistic prostitute who reconciles the various dimensions of her life ("Sometimes I gotta do other things, but I'm singing every night, ain't I?"); Mr. Marks a Jewish factory owner who is Esther's friend and business associate; and Mrs. Dickson, Esther's landlady. But these people can only do so much for our heroine.

Then a letter arrives -- and with it, rising from the bowels of the stage, comes George Armstrong, a rangy Barbados native who is working on the construction of the Panama Canal. All grit and grime and grin, George describes the experience of watching "one man drop for every 20 feet of canal dug." And he speaks of coming to New York to meet Esther. The seamstress is intrigued but cannot respond because she is illiterate. So Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren -- each battling her own demons of uncertainty and loneliness -- become her surrogate correspondents, and a relationship blossoms across the hemisphere.

Though George sees death all around him, he is nonetheless a romantic. From a distance, he marvels at the delicacy of Esther's work even before he has seen it, the "tiny stitches drawing together the pieces of satin." Before long, the two meet and Esther is stitching her own wedding corset. There's a priceless moment -- lovingly staged by director Kate Whoriskey to enhance the Nottage text -- featuring the new couple as contrasting images. The virginal bride, a slave's daughter who came North to sew intimate apparel and learn discretion, stands pristine in her lustrous, white satin gown on the opposite side of the bed from her scruffy, disheveled new husband, who is decked out in a misshapen tan wool suit. And although Esther assures her new man that she'd walk on his good arm "whether it's shining shoes or picking cotton," their differences are a portent of what's to come.

Shané Williams in Intimate Apparel(Photo: © Richard Anderson)
Shané Williams in Intimate Apparel
(Photo: © Richard Anderson)
Coming at a time of considerable experimentation with new forms in multicultural theater, Intimate Apparel -- to be re-staged later this spring at South Coast Repertory -- is an affectionate throwback to the gentle yet passionate theater pieces of Lorraine Hansberry and the younger August Wilson. George, in his way, displays the same weak core as Hansberry's Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. And even if the latter rises to the occasion and the former does not, Esther and George are as much a part of the continuum of history as is the Younger family.

The play apparently had its origins in Nottage's own family history. But it was a photograph of a white satin wedding corset embossed with orange blossoms, contained in a volume depicting the history of lingerie, that directly sparked the creation of the piece when Nottage came across it at a public library. That photo has also sparked the imagination of costume designer Catherine Zuber.

The cast is particularly well balanced. Shané Williams is a revelation as Esther, balancing a heartbreaking yearning with a sense of self-esteem that one imagines may have been rare among African American women in those days. Kevin Jackson brings an endearing robustness to George even as his less savory qualities emerge. Erica Gimpel is lush and potent as Mayme, who has seen wonderful ideas "conjured" in her room, then "left right on the table, in that bed there, or on this piano bench...scattered all over." Sue Cremin (Mrs. Van Buren), Steven Goldstein (Mr. Marks), and Brenda Pressley (Mrs. Dickson) bring sensitivity and presence to characters who have had their own dreams deferred or diluted.

Ultimately, the six people around whom this story revolves find themselves onstage, hushed and reflective, part of a seemingly unchanged tableau. They have gone back to before, so to speak. Yet in confronting the intimacy of truth, each one's life has unquestionably been changed.