intimateapparel284Stacey Sargeant commands the stage as Esther in INTIMATE APPAREL, the drama that continues its limited run through October 10 at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)


Is it a bit too early to proclaim the finest production of the local professional stage season?

It probably wouldn’t be fair to a lot of folks — least of all the people of Two River Theater Company, who after all are just now getting underway with the 2010-2011 slate of mainstage entertainments at their branded Bridge Avenue arts center. Still, based on the opening night evidence, this season’s curtain raiser is going to be one gloriously tough act to follow.

Onstage now through October 10, Intimate Apparel is that too-rare sort of show that reinforces the idea that choreography isn’t just confined to musicals — it’s in the awesome teamwork of a top-shelf cast, precision tech squad, visionary designers and a production unit who GET it — working from the foundation of a genuinely worthy script. It’s a work with the kind of power that can really only be served up by a great theatergoing experience — and a reminder that Red Bank, New Jersey, boasts a professional organization that’s truly poised to serve.


Clockwise from top left: Curtis McClarin, Matthew Boston, Amy Lynn Stewart and Nikiya Mathis co-star in INTIMATE APPAREL, the inaugural offering of the new season at Two River Theater.

Set in New York City circa 1905, the 2003 two-acter by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage centers around Esther Mills (Stacey Sargeant), a country-bred, orphaned, illiterate “unidentified Negro seamstress” who — having recently marked her 35th birthday — seems resigned to many more years as a resident of the ladies’ boarding house run by frequently disapproving den mother Mrs. Dickson (Elain Graham). With options severely limited for a woman of her age, skin color, education and marital status, Esther stashes away her cash for the day when she’ll open a “fancy beauty parlor for colored ladies;” making a living (and a fine reputation) by crafting beautiful custom-fit corsets and other “intimate apparel” on a pump-pedal Singer machine.

It’s Esther’s wondrous way with a whalebone that brings her into contact with a clientele that ranges from the bored, unloved Park Avenue wife Mrs. Van Buren (Amy Lynn Stewart), to the cynical piano-prodigy prostitute Mayme (Nikiya Mathis). To these two very different women, Esther is a friend and a confidante; an unwitting muse who brings out their adventurous sides, and whose appearances in their similarly unhappy lives remain a rare ray of light.

The same might also be said of Mr. Marks (Matthew Boston), the Jewish textile merchant who sells the marvelous fabrics with which the seamstress does her stuff. The Romanian immigrant’s obvious delight in finding new discoveries for his favorite customer takes an awkward turn, however, as unarticulated desires threaten to turn a warmly cordial relationship into something that neither party can scarcely understand.

Into the small but complicated world of Esther comes a sea change, in the person of George Armstrong (Curtis McClarin), a strapping laborer who speaks with a charmin’ Caribbean lilt, and who enters her life through a series of roughly romantic letters sent from his workplace in the malarial trenches of the Panama Canal project. Responding to her suitor’s epistolary entreaties (with the help of her readin’ writin’ friends), the 35-year-old virgin finds herself at play’s midpoint sharing an altar — and a matrimonial bed — with a man she only thinks she knows.


A tender, if awkward, moment between Esther (Stacey Sageant) and Mr. Marks (Matthew Boston).

The people who move through Esther’s life are delineated by a remarkable ensemble of players — working under acclaimed stage director Seret Scott, and all of them new to the Two River stage. Packed with fine dialogue, some hard-earned laughs and an underlying, non-sermonizing morality, playwright Nottage’s well-researched script gives flesh and substance to these characters. While they’re often colorful, they’re never cartoons — not the heart o’ gold whore, nor the oblivious society dame — nor the “sportin’ man” rascal of a husband, whose outbursts and strayings are tempered by moments of guilt and shame.

Most remarkable of all, these supporting characters never cross paths with each other — sharing the same space on the island of Manhattan (Tony Cisek‘s scenic design does duty as some half a dozen locales) while living lives that never intersect; imprisoned by social strictures and religious scriptures. While it’s all filtered through the modern playwright’s sensibility, the characters always ring true — in that nobody here ultimately breaks out of the suffocating corset of their circa-1905 American lives.

The one common denominator in the many vignettes that make up this play is, of course, Esther — meaning that Stacey Sargeant is onstage for each and every moment of the (two hours plus) production. Stamina alone is but one of the skillsets on display here, as the lead actress shows the stuff of which genuine star turns are made. Running an emotional gamut even when portraying someone unable or unwilling to speak her mind; illuminating a person of basic decency lost in a sea of complex feelings and conflicting allegiances — Sargeant strips Esther down to her unmentionables, while at the same time stitching together the layers of defenses that allow her to survive. It’s a powerhouse performance; strong and true and so very right for the Two River stage.

Intimate Apparel stands as a particular tour de force for the in-house costume department at Two River Theater, with designer Olivera Gajic and crew stepping up to realize the looks of everyone from prim spinsters and Orthodox bachelors, to high-class hookers and slumming socialites. The play continues with performances Wednesdays through Sundays, wrapping its run on October 10. Ticket reservations and more info on this and other upcoming productions (including the return of the Flashes of Brilliance solo show series) can be had on the TRTC website.