Theater review: Northlight’s “Intimate Apparel” is an exquisite fabric

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One could think the game intimate clothes at the Northlight Theater is about a black seamstress who makes intimate apparel for wealthy white clients, but it’s about so much more.

The seam that continues is the intimate establishment of a social fabric that answers the question: Can you be what you are not to get what you want?

The answer changes throughout the play, but one thing is constant. The acting is exquisite, a theatrical pleasure. And quite a feat considering that the characters’ relationships with Esther, the sweet and innocent 35-year-old seamstress, are all unlikely and surprisingly intimate.

Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) has a difficult role. She has to appeal to all characters of different races and backgrounds, and the audience has to accept her relationships. Langford makes us feel his innocence and his vulnerability.

Mrs. Dickson (Felicia P. Fields) rents Esther a room with free and mostly unwelcome advice: “Talk and a dime will get you 5 cents in trouble,” she tells Esther. Fields plays her part with a mix of motherly attention and harsh doses of reality. When Esther asks her why she puts up with her bad husband, she says to him: “I forgive him his infatuation with opiates because he has this rooming house.

Mildred Marie Langford, left, as Esther and Rebecca Spence as Mrs. Van Buren in ‘Intimate Apparel’. Credit: Liz Lauren

Mrs. Van Buren (Rebecca Spence), a white, wealthy, unmarried client confides in Esther more than Esther buys. Spence, most often seen in a flamboyant corset created by Esther, fulfills her desire to be sexy with a desperation that invites sympathy and exposes racial insensitivity.

Mayme (Rashada Dawan) is the prostitute who teaches Esther more about life than she wants to know. Dawan’s flamboyance fills the scene with exuberance and an inevitable dose of reality.

Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato), the Orthodox Jewish cloth merchant, is the only one based on shared passions, which are hopelessly impossible to satisfy because of who they both are. He loves fine fabric, just like Esther, but he tells her, “I wear the black fabric of my father’s suit (instead of the fine fabric he loves and sells) to keep my relationship with my ancestors. Fortunato is the master of gesture. He plays such a sweet soul.

Esther (Mildred Marie Langford) and Mr. Marks (Sean Fortunato) share a common passion for “intimate wear”. Credit: Liz Lauren

George (Al’Jaleel McGhee), is Esther’s life-changing desired lover whose appearance also changes the innocent nature of the play. McGhee is a credible accomplice and lying villain. It must be both if the shifting tenor of the play from innocence to disappointment to betrayal makes transparent and believable shifts.

If there is a criticism to be made with this production, it is about the screenplay itself, set in 1905 but written 18 years ago. Some parts are a little long, perhaps the result of an older piece being adapted for a different era and a different contemporary audience. Cynicism is more prevalent now, and some of the characters’ naive beliefs and innocent conversations don’t suit the complexities and dynamics of the relationships. On the other hand, it might not be a bad idea to have a little softness to dilute the cynicism.

Mildred Marie Langford stars as Esther in “Intimate Apparel,” which runs until May 15. Credit: Liz Lauren

Without question, intimate clothes is a recommended production. It’s moving, engaging and sensitive. And the answers to the question: Can you be what you are not to get what you want? will stay with the public for quite a while.

The actors deserve the standing ovations they receive. The show ends May 15 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Northlight requires all customers to wear masks and provide proof of vaccinations or recent negative COVID-19 tests. Tickets ($30 to $85, with student seats $15) can be purchased on the Northlight website or by calling the box office at 847-673-6300.

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