Esther Mills is the protagonist of Lynn Nottage’s acclaimed play, Intimate Apparel, now playing at New Village Arts in Carlsbad through October 20. Inspired by the life of the playwright’s great-grandmother, Esther is a 35-year-old seamstress in 1905 Manhattan who can do anything with actual fabric but little with the fabric of her life.
Throughout the play, Esther corresponds with, and eventually agrees to marry a Caribbean laborer named George Armstrong. Esther is illiterate, and we come to find that George is too, so both have others pen their letters on their behalf, reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac. George writes from Panama where he’s one of the thousands of men building the canal. Encouraged by her rich client Mrs. Van Buren and her friend Mayme, Esther is soon won over by his poetic love letters. At the same time, she doesn’t realize her attraction to Mr. Marks, the orthodox Jew from whom she regularly buys fabric.
“What sort of things do you like to do?” Mrs. Van Buren asks of Esther.
Esther replies, “I… I go to church every Sunday, well practically, but I don’t really listen to the sermons. I just like the company and the singing of course…
“And on Tuesdays… I take the trolley down to Orchard Street, and I climb five flights, in darkness, to this tiny apartment. And, when I open the door my eyes are met…”
The lights come up on Mr. Marks, A Romanian Jewish fabric seller, in his shop. He is relatively young and likely immigrated to the U.S. sometime in the last few years. Mr. Marks is a bright and passionate man; he loves beautiful fabrics and the stories he learns about them. He knows that Esther shares this passion, and he’s often able to sell her fabric that she insists she doesn’t need by sharing the stories with her.
An observant Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks is dedicated to upholding the rules of his religion and often explains these rules to Esther. He cannot wear colors aside from black and cannot touch women who aren’t his wife or family members. He also has a fiancée at home in Romania, whom he’s never met—but whom he will, in theory, send for when his shop is doing well enough to support a family. The cultural differences pose problems for Esther and Mr. Marks, as the two are attracted to each other but can never be together.
Intimate Apparel won the 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award and the Outer Critics Circle Best Play Award. Ms. Nottage has received a MacArthur Genius Grant (2007), two NAACP Theatre Awards for performance and is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (“Ruined” in 2009 and “Sweat” in 2017)
New Village Arts Theatre is located at 2787 State Street, Carlsbad. Intimate Apparels runs through October 20. Ticket pricing is $18-$36, for shows running Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.newvillagearts.org.