Esther, the seamstress at the heart of Lynn Nottage's richly embroidered drama "Intimate Apparel," which is enjoying an ardent revival at Everyman Theatre, felt "as though God kissed my hands" the first time she finished a garment.
She turned that gift into a steady, tolerable business, at least for a single African-American woman in 1905 New York City — making fine-quality corsets and such. But Esther hopes for much more. In her boarding house room in Lower Manhattan, she clutches tightly to a dream of opening "a quaint beauty parlor for colored ladies" and saves up every dollar she can for it, sewing the money into a quilt.
Nothing will distract her from her goal, until the arrival of a letter from George, a man she has never met, a laborer digging a canal in Panama. The correspondence changes everything in Esther's tidy, if lonely, life.
Out of this material, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Nottage stitches a story that touches on familiar matters — love, desire, race, class, self-worth, deception, disillusionment — in a way that, 14 years after the work's premiere at Baltimore Center Stage, still feels fresh.
The Everyman staging, directed in his usual thorough, sensitive manner by Tazewell Thompson, mines the emotional depth of "Intimate Apparel" with the help of a dynamic cast. First-rate production values provide abundant atmosphere the whole way through.
Dawn Ursula gives a compelling portrayal of Esther. The actress may sound a little too hard-edged at times, underlining the tough surface Esther developed after arriving alone from North Carolina as a teen. But she reveals the character's inner dignity and vulnerability to poignant effect, in some cases with no more the image of a hand reaching out to touch. And, most movingly, when she utters Esther's simple, nakedly honest words when faced with deflating reality: "I wanted to be held."
Lots of little details give Ursula's performance depth, especially in her scenes with Drew Kopas as Mr. Marks, a gentle, awkward Jewish cloth merchant who sees in Esther much more than a customer.
The walls — cultural, religious, economic — between these two figures may be formidable, but Ursula and Kopas make you feel just how easily a bridge could open if only it were a different time, a different world. And, of course, if it weren't for George, played with boundless animation by Bueka Uwemedimo.
I am not sure why Uwemedimo keeps his volume at full-blast, but he certainly fits Esther's description: "He got a melodious voice, each word a song unto itself." And the actor deftly conveys George's combustible mix of ambition, resentment and entitlement (note what happens when Esther, fitting George for a suit, needs a hand getting back up).
As Esther's prostitute friend Mayme, happy to toast "one less spinster in New York," Jade Wheeler could use a bit more nuance, yet becomes a potent force as the drama intensifies. Jenn Walker does beautiful work as Mrs. Dickson, the knowing landlady who was urged by her mother to "marry up" (Walker makes that reminiscence hit home with particular power).
As Mrs. Van Buren, Esther's rich white customer and would-be friend, Beth Hylton gives a masterful performance. Note how, with the subtlest flick of a wrist, she communicates privilege and condescension, even while professing boundless affection for Esther.
The action flows seamlessly on Donald Eastman's set, with scene changes effected by the smooth moving of a few props (an ever-present bed, whether used and unused, provides a reminder of intimacy sought and fought). David Burdick's costumes are perfectly detailed, and not just the undergarments.
Stephen Quandt provides the superbly shaded lighting. In addition to such things as evoking street traffic and piano lessons down the hall, Fabian Obispo's expert sound design weaves period music into the aural landscape; Scott Joplin's almost bittersweet waltz "Bethena" is an especially apt choice.
"Intimate Apparel" may take a soap opera turn or two, but Nottage never loses her grip on what makes her characters so real, their experiences so meaningful. This passionate Everyman production never loses its hold, either.