Delayed by the pandemic, expertly designed ‘intimates’ are Northlight’s gift to theater goers

“Underwear” —    

Northlight Theater’s revival of “Intimate Apparel” is a gift to theatergoers, one all the more appreciated for being so long overdue.

On the day of its first preview in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Northlight to cancel a revival of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play about a black seamstress who creates exceptional underwear for members of the socialites and sex workers in 1905 Manhattan.



Mildred Marie Langford stars as Esther, a talented African-American seamstress in 1905 New York who longs for love and family, in Lynn Nottage’s revival of “Intimate Apparel” at Northlight Theatre.
– Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Two years later, director Tasia A. Jones, her creative team, and all but one of the original cast members reunited for Nottage’s poignant play, inspired in part by her great-grandmother, of an African-American woman confined to the fringes of the history. Esther Mills, exquisitely played by Mildred Marie Langford, is one of many nameless and unknown African Americans who, though not part of the public record, were essential threads in the fabric of the nation.

The painfully moving story Nottage weaves is rooted in loneliness and a quest for intimacy that eludes the play’s complex and subtly drawn characters. Beautifully acted, deliberately paced and richly emotional, Jones’s production is directed by Langford, whose eloquent portrayal of Esther is the thread running through this well-done tapestry.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        


Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) and George (Yao Dogbe) try to mend the strain on their marriage at the Northlight Theatre. "Underwear."

Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) and George (Yao Dogbe) try to mend the strain in their marriage in Northlight Theatre’s “Intimate Apparel.”
– Courtesy of Liz Lauren

And what a beautiful tapestry is unfurling in the airy, all-white, Scott Penner-style boudoir dominated by Esther’s bed covered in the patchwork quilt she’s sewn money she’s earned over 18 years into. Most of the suits stick to the pale palette, with the exception of splashes of color from Esther’s sumptuous creations (delicately embellished magenta, pale blue and tangerine corsets) and a handsome tuxedo jacket courtesy of designer Raquel Adorno.

We first meet Esther, an artist of unrivaled talent, hunched over her sewing machine beneath a projection of a sepia-tinted photograph titled “Unidentified Black Seamstress.”

She dreams of opening a beauty salon for black women, but in the short term she longs for a husband. However, at 35, her prospects are limited, and the gentlemen her kind and well-meaning landlady, Mrs. Dickson (Felicia P. Fields), recommends do not interest her.


Among Esther's clients is Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), right, a wealthy socialite dumped by her husband, who buys the finely tailored lingerie Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) creates at "Underwear" through May 15 at Northlight Theater in Skokie.

Among Esther’s clients is Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), right, a wealthy socialite dumped by her husband, who buys the finely tailored lingerie Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) creates in ” Intimates” through May 15 at the Northlight Theater in Skokie. .
– Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Hope for a happy future comes in the form of a letter from a Barbadian named George (a melodious, elliptical performance by Yao Dogbe), a laborer working on the Panama Canal, who writes to him at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance. Unable to read, Esther mentions the letter to Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), a wealthy and desperately unhappy client who orders Esther’s seductive garments in hopes of winning back the affections of her unfaithful husband. Mrs. Van Buren offers to write to George on Esther’s behalf. She is also made by Esther’s friend and client, Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute who warns her that while it sounds sweet, George “isn’t real.”

Mr. Marks (low-key Sean Fortunato), a sensitive Jewish cloth merchant who appreciates Esther’s talents and shares her love of fine fabrics, is very real but out of reach.

“It’s not often that something so fine and delicate comes into the shop,” she says, referring both to the Japanese silk she is selling and to the seamstress herself.

Their affection is evident (notice how they mirror each other’s gestures), but racial and religious differences make it impossible for them to be more than friends. So when George, eager to experience the promise of America, proposes to her, Esther accepts. Still, her loneliness persists, as she does in all of these characters.



Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute, tries on one of the corsets that Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has created in Northlight Theater's revival of "Underwear."

Mayme (Rashada Dawan), a prostitute, tries on one of the corsets that Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has created in Northlight Theatre’s revival of “Intimate Apparel.”
– Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Longing for love, desperate for unfulfilled dreams, each is deprived. But not entirely flawless. “Intimate Apparel” makes it clear that these characters are responsible for their choices, their deception, their inertia, while also acknowledging that their behavior is limited by gender, religion, race, income, and status.

In the play’s poignant final moments, we see Esther once again at her typewriter, beneath the same sepia-tinted photograph of the unidentified woman. Only this time she has a name: a fitting tribute to an unknown woman marginalized by history whose ordinary life inspired extraordinary drama.

• Al’Jaleel McGhee will take on the role of George beginning May 3.

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Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300, northlight.org

Hours: 1 and 7:30 pm Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8:00 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. from Sunday to May 15. Also 7:30 pm on May 3 and 7 pm on May 15

Tickets: $30-$89

Duration: Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, with intermission

Parking: In the lot adjacent to the theater

Classification: for teens and older

COVID-19 precautions: proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masking required

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