Timeless themes and relationships transcend the early 20th century setting
Despite taking place in 1905, Intimate Apparel portrays modern truths. The play tells the story of Esther (Marci T. House), a single black woman who sews intimate apparel for wealthy “Fifth Avenue” women.
Through Esther’s relationships with her landlord Mrs. Dickson, her sex worker friend Mayme, her wealthy white client Mrs. VanBuren, her Jewish fabric supplier Mr. Marks, and her Caribbean pen pal George, Intimate Apparel depicts the tensions occurring in early 20th century New York City between wealth and poverty, black and white, and love and practicality.
Modern audiences will relate to Esther’s character as she faces timeless problems such as money trouble, too-distant aspirations, and mixed feelings about the nature of love. House’s nuanced and human portrayal of Esther — balancing the character’s sensibility and pragmatism with her hope and giddiness — also help audiences identify with her character.
The depictions of Mr. Marks and George were similarly enjoyable and revealed insights still relevant today regarding the troubles facing immigrants in North America. Young managed to avoid making a caricature out of the theatrical and mildly neurotic character of Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric salesman, while Herbert carefully manipulated his controlled line delivery and voice — which was sweet, thick, and dangerously sticky as molasses — in his portrayal of George, a labourer from Panama.
However, not all of the characters are portrayed so delicately. Esther’s friend Mayme, as played by Regis, was altogether too contemporary for a play set over a century ago. Her modern African-American accent, along with phrases such as “I’m just playin’ with you” put Regis’ scenes out of sync with the rest of the play. Similarly, in what seems like a weak effort to throw extra social commentary into the story that would be relevant to a modern viewer, the romantic subplot involving Mrs. VanBuren, Esther’s white client, was neither well-developed nor believable and distracted from the main story. Esther, who the story is centred around, is provided with endless options for action through her relationships and interactions with the other characters. Intimate Apparel leaves audiences with more questions than answers about what the ‘right’ decision would have been — which is perhaps how it manages to be relevant. to its modern audiences.