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Arts Sewn up tighter than a ... 

Intimate Apparel’s turn-of-the-century heroine is threatened by amour

No, Intimate Apparel isn’t San Antonio’s first foray into Victoria Secret-based performance art. (Though, for the record, I’d be all for that.) It is the San Pedro Playhouse’s generally solid production of Lynn Nottage’s recent off-Broadway hit about an emotionally stunted African-American seamstress and her complex, intimate relationships with her clients. Set in 1905 Manhattan, Intimate Apparel evokes the type of ethnic mixing celebrated in, say, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (Whites! Blacks! Jews! And, what the hell, West Indians!), as well as a very 21st-century take on class (Socialites! Hookers!) and sexuality (Straight! Probably straight!). What’s remarkable is that for so schematic a play — the first act is basically one long wind-up punch — the second act knocks the audience flat with its involving complications, as the seamstress’ one shot at romance threatens to upend the lives of all the characters.

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From left: Shanti Suttin as the independent seamstress Esther, Eva Laporte as the cocktail-swilling socialite Mrs. Van Buren, and Stephanie Hicks as the prostitute Mayme in the Cellar’s production of Intimate Apparel.

At first, Intimate Apparel plays like a period piece by Shaw or Ibsen: a linear progression of clients and confessions, held together by the capable performance of Shanti Suttin as Esther, the roving underwear seamstress. If Suttin rather overplays Esther’s mousiness in the first act — too many pauses and Outward Displays of Repression — she also nails Esther’s drive and will-to-sew: This is a woman who has clawed her way into a stable living, and no man will threaten her way of life. An unexpected letter from a suitor in Panama, however, throws a wrench into the works, and as an epistolary romance blossoms, Esther dares to dream of another life. As George, Esther’s promising suitor, Boris Thomas brings an appropriate physicality to the role, though his diction often succumbs to an overly broad Caribbean accent.

Other supporting parts are generally well-played throughout the piece. As the lonely, gossipy, cocktail-guzzling social fixture Mrs. Van Buren, Eva Laporte steals every scene she’s in, whether prancing around in outré undergarments or (just as likely) slapping back another martini. (And why some enterprising local producer hasn’t snapped up Laporte for Hedda Gabler is beyond me. Give this actress her own vehicle, folks.) Joyce Jefferson, as Esther’s landlady, provides a lot of necessary exposition, but also delivers a surprisingly affecting soliloquy about the perils of amour.

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Boris Thomas as Esther’s suitor George.

Such admonitions turn out to be well placed. Esther’s suitor from South America has a rival in Mr. Marks, a local Jewish textile merchant from Romania, touchingly played by Ruben Valadez. In a sense, Esther and Mr. Marks are perfect for each other; they’ve a lot in common, such as smoldering sexual neuroses and a fetish for Japanese silk. But personal circumstances — and more importantly, social taboos — complicate the chances for a romantic liaison, and so the two must make do with saying “I love you” the old-fashioned way: with four yards of negotiated Scottish wool and a lot of awkward silence. These are among the truest moments of Frank Latson’s direction, as two lonely souls seek to negotiate love one bolt of muslin at a time.

Intimate Apparel

8pm Fri, 7pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Feb 5
$20 adult;
$18 senior, military;
$12 student

The Cellar
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby

Stephanie Hicks inhabits the role of Mayme, a free-wheeling prostitute created, one senses, as a foil to the considerably more sexually inhibited Esther. Unfortunately, Hicks isn’t quite able to capture the believability of Mayme’s hairpin reversal of affections in the second act, and so a concluding argument with Esther comes across as baffling and out-of-character, sapping the theatricality of several revelations.

Latson’s witty set is a phantasmagoria of fabric, neatly and economically demarcating a boudoir, a merchant’s shop, an apartment, and a sleazy saloon. Even the Panamanian jungle appears as sheets of billowing green trim, a clever touch. Asheley-Beth Draffan’s lighting helps shift the action around the small stage, though some of the concluding blackouts are too slow. Each act is also bookended by what is supposed to be 1905 flash photography but which feels like an H-bomb. A little less flash in the flash powder, please.

Irradiated retinas aside, this is good work in the SPP’s Cellar, and in a city starved for socially aware theater, all the more appreciated. Between this and last fall’s Frozen at SAC, San Antonio is finally getting the scoop on Austin in bringing the best of New York City to the local stage. So let’s cross our fingers that SPP decides to bring such hot shows to the larger main stage, and out of a space that’s now, in so many ways, exceedingly intimate.

By Thomas Jenkins

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