Delayed by the pandemic, expertly fashioned 'Intimate Apparel' is Northlight's gift to theatergoers

  • Turn-of-the-19th-century seamstress Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) finds a kindred spirt in Jewish fabric seller Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato) in Northlight Theatre's production of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel."

    Turn-of-the-19th-century seamstress Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) finds a kindred spirt in Jewish fabric seller Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato) in Northlight Theatre's production of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Director Tasia A. Jones' revival of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" boasts finely etched performances from the Northlight Theatre cast.

    Director Tasia A. Jones' revival of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" boasts finely etched performances from the Northlight Theatre cast. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 4/28/2022 11:11 AM

"Intimate Apparel" -- ★ ★ ★ ★

Northlight Theatre's revival of "Intimate Apparel" is a gift to theatergoers, one all the more prized for being so long overdue.

 

On the day of its first preview in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Northlight to cancel its revival of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage's play about a Black seamstress who creates exceptional undergarments for socialites and sex workers in 1905 Manhattan.

Mildred Marie Langford plays Esther, a talented African American seamstress in 1905 New York who longs for love and family, in Northlight Theatre's revival of "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage.
Mildred Marie Langford plays Esther, a talented African American seamstress in 1905 New York who longs for love and family, in Northlight Theatre's revival of "Intimate Apparel" by Lynn Nottage. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Two years later, director Tasia A. Jones, her creative team and all but one of the original cast members have reunited for Nottage's affecting play -- partly inspired by her great-grandmother -- of an African American woman confined to history's periphery. Esther Mills -- brought exquisitely to life by Mildred Marie Langford -- is one of many unknown, unnamed African Americans who, while not part of the public record, were essential threads in the nation's fabric.

The achingly poignant tale Nottage weaves is rooted in loneliness and a search for intimacy that eludes the play's complex, subtly drawn characters. Beautifully acted, deliberately paced and richly emotional, Jones' production is led by Langford, whose eloquent performance as Esther is the singular thread in this well-made tapestry.

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Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) and George (Yao Dogbe) try to repair the strain in their marriage in Northlight Theatre's "Intimate Apparel."
Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) and George (Yao Dogbe) try to repair the strain in their marriage in Northlight Theatre's "Intimate Apparel." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

And what a beautiful tapestry it is unfolding on Scott Penner's airy, all-white, boudoir-inspired set dominated by Esther's bed covered by the patchwork quilt into which she has sewn the money she has earned over 18 years. Most of the costumes adhere to the pale palette, the exception being the pops of color from Esther's sumptuous creations -- delicately embellished magenta, pale blue and tangerine corsets -- and a handsome smoking jacket courtesy of designer Raquel Adorno.

We first encounter Esther -- an artist of unmatched talent -- bent over her sewing machine beneath a projection of a sepia-tinged photograph captioned "unidentified Negro seamstress."

She dreams of opening a beauty parlor for Black women but in the near term, she longs for a husband. However, at 35, her prospects are limited and the gentlemen her warmhearted, well-meaning landlady Mrs. Dickson (Felicia P. Fields) recommends do not interest her.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Among Esther's clients is Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), right, a wealthy socialite neglected by her husband, who purchases the finely crafted undergarments Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) creates in "Intimate Apparel" running through May 15 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
Among Esther's clients is Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), right, a wealthy socialite neglected by her husband, who purchases the finely crafted undergarments Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) creates in "Intimate Apparel" running through May 15 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Hope for a happy future arrives in the form of a letter from a Barbadian named George (a lilting, elliptical performance by Yao Dogbe), a laborer working on the Panama Canal, who writes her at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance. Esther, who cannot read, mentions the letter to Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), a wealthy, desperately unhappy client who commissions Esther's alluring garments hoping to regain her cheating husband's affection. Mrs. Van Buren offers to write to George on Esther's behalf. So does Esther's friend and client Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute who warns her that while he sounds sweet, George "ain't real."

Mr. Marks (the understated Sean Fortunato), a sensitive Jewish fabric merchant who appreciates Esther's talent and shares her love of fine fabrics, is very real but out of reach.

"It isn't often something so fine and delicate enters the store," he says referring to both the Japanese silk he's selling and the seamstress herself.

Their affection is apparent (note how they mirror each other's gestures), but racial and religious differences make it impossible for them to be anything more than friends. So, when George -- eager to experience America's promise -- proposes marriage, Esther accepts. Still, her loneliness persists, as it does in all of these characters.

Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute, tries on one of the corsets Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has created in Northlight Theatre's revival of "Intimate Apparel."
Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute, tries on one of the corsets Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has created in Northlight Theatre's revival of "Intimate Apparel." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Yearning for love, despairing over unrealized dreams, each is bereft. But not entirely blameless. "Intimate Apparel" makes clear that these characters are responsible for their choices, their deceptions, their inertia while at the same time acknowledging their behavior is constrained by gender, religion, race, income and status.

In the play's moving final moments, we see Esther once again at her machine, beneath that same sepia-tinged photograph of the unidentified woman. Only this time she has a name: a fitting tribute to an unknown woman marginalized by history whose ordinary life inspired an extraordinary drama.

• Al'Jaleel McGhee takes over the role of George beginning May 3.

• • •

Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300, northlight.org

Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through May 15. Also 7:30 p.m. May 3 and 7 p.m. May 15

Tickets: $30-$89

Running time: About 2 hours 40 minutes, with intermission

Parking: In the lot adjacent to the theater

Rating: For teens and older

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masking required

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