“Intimate Apparel,” directed by Don LaCasse at Heartland Theatre, is set in the optimistic milieu of 1905 New York City.

The play weaves itself around Esther (Faith Servant), a black seamstress.

Esther’s a self-made woman. She’s more artist than seamstress, creating gorgeous lace and satin under-garments for a variety of customers.

Sewing long hours in her boarding house room, Esther has managed to save a good bit of money that she’s stitched into her quilt (set decorating by Jeannie Walker Breitweister). She plans to someday open a black beauty parlor. At 35, Esther also wants a husband and a chance at a less lonely life.

Award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage wrote “Intimate Apparel” based on stories from her family history. You can feel the love she has for these characters (save one).

Each of her six characters wants something. Boarding house owner Mrs. Dickson (a warmhearted Jennifer Rusk) wants to protect Esther from bad decisions.

Customer Mrs. Van Buren (Megan Tennis), a Fifth Avenue socialite, wants children and respite from a lonely marriage. Another customer, Mayme (Fania Bourn), is a saloon whore who dreams of playing concert level piano. Both women want intimate apparel that mimics what the other is wearing.

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Tennis finds a nice balance between haughty but vulnerable. Bourn has sass to spare but also lets in a wisp of vulnerability.

George (Elante Edward Richardson) is a laborer on the Panama Canal. He starts an epistolary friendship with Esther, though their letter writing is never quite what it seems. He wants a better life in America.

Mr. Marks (Rhys Lovell) is the gentle observant Jew who runs the store where Esther buys her fabric. He doesn’t know what he wants but the audience does.

The tender scenes between Lovell and Servant, as they discuss a piece of fabric, are so intimate and heart-rending that watching them almost feels like intruding.

Servant is radiant as Esther. She imbues her character with humor and dignity, continually revealing levels of strength in the face of bad decisions and hope that won’t die.

On preview night, the story felt more episodic than it needed to because of time spent changing the set onstage. That pace will likely pick up during the run so more focus can stay on this warm, well-acted play.

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Brokaw is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.


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