A PIECE of obnoxious actor jargon—"tread the boards"—was stuck in my head after opening night of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel at Artists Repertory Theatre. Directed by Portland mainstay Michael Mendelson, the production fills every bit of space in Nottage's script with subtle sound: money sliding across a bed then falling to the floor, tea pouring, the treadling rhythm of a sewing machine, and yes, footsteps on wood.
The play, set in 1905 New York, follows a black seamstress, unmarried at 35, creator of beautiful lingerie for both "proper" Fifth Avenue white ladies and the scandalous good-time girls of the slums. Ayanna Berkshire plays Esther with the combination of grim propriety, stubborn self-righteousness, and girlish dreaminess of someone who spends equal time in the confidence of prostitutes and the prosperous.
Dedra D. Woods plays Mayme, representing the brothel crowd, with a husky song-and-dance feel that's sexy and weathered and sad. Meanwhile, Sara Hennessy gives some much-needed lightness to the too-familiar character of Mrs. Van Buren, a rich and restless kept woman of Fifth Avenue.
Esther's scenes with her customers are, however, overshadowed early by her scenes with Mrs. Dickson, her landlady and mother figure for much of the play. Demene E. Hall is exuberant as Mrs. Dickson, an image of early 20th century bootstrapping black success who preaches upward mobility by marriage, but is too matronly to really want to give Esther up to any man. Hall is sweet and raw and sometimes hard, but seems always on the verge of laughing everything off. Hers is the most fun performance in the play.
Meanwhile, some men: George, Esther's pen-pal lover from Panama, mostly exists by letter in the first act. Vin Shambry, in various states of manly undress, is typically magnetic as George, threatening always to boil over with some hot emotion; he reads George's letters like they've been burned into his chest. Chris Harder plays the adorable, devout Mr. Marks, the Romanian immigrant who sells Esther her fabric. Dumbstruck by his obvious feelings for Esther, his struggle to describe his religion is one of the most poignant in the play.
And Mr. Marks' tongue-tied character also offers space in an otherwise too-fast-paced play. While Nottage's script is a well-researched historical drama, it often loses track of its nuanced politics in favor of unsubtle and predictable drama. Luckily, Mendelson & Co. let the play live in its transitions—in echoing steps, Mr. Marks' crinkling paper, George's heavy breathing, and the steady working of Esther's sewing machine, the rhythm of patchwork life.