The first act of "Intimate Apparel" at the Barksdale ends with Esther, a 35-year-old seamstress, joining hands with George, a laborer building the Panama canal. They have known each other only through letters when they meet in person for the first time on their wedding day. As the two actors stand at the back of the stage in matrimonial attire looking vaguely uncomfortable, there's a burst of light like a camera flash and the words "Unidentified Negro Couple, ca. 1905" are projected behind them on a screen.
The photographic tableau reminds the audience that complex and churning lives can get reduced to unidentifiable photographs, the subjects unknowable.
The story up to then focuses on lonely Esther's life in a boarding house, where she sews lingerie for high-society ladies and prostitutes, and becomes enlivened by her newfound foreign admirer. She's illiterate, so friends and clients ghostwrite her love letters to George.
Mrs. Dickson (Tawnya Pettiford-Wates), the owner of the boarding house, clucks that such a correspondence is improper. Mrs. Van Buren (Jennifer Massey), a wealthy, white society lady neglected by her husband, looks forward to the letter-writing sessions like a serialized soap opera. Mayme (Katrinah Carol Lewis), a prostitute, adds a bawdy note to the letters she sends. Each scene is set in the characters' bedrooms. A quilt at the end of a bed at center stage is rearranged to signal which room we're in, a marvelous economy of staging. Each woman's reaction to Esther's situation makes clear her positions on the realities of intimate relationships with men as she armors herself in Esther's ornate corsets.
But what does Esther think? The actress Adanma Onyedike gives us a likeable, complicated Esther who's tough-minded enough to make it on her own, but not so walled off that she doesn't get romanced by life's small details. But why does she invite this stranger into her life. Is she lonely? Desperate? Adventurous? In love? It's never entirely clear.
George (Chris Lindsay) arrives and Act 2 demonstrates the many ways he falls painfully short of the decency and charm the letters promised. He manipulates Esther into giving him her life savings and runs off afterward. But why does she give him the money? Is she masochistic? Is it momentary insanity? Does she really think he'll spend it wisely?
The play examines themes of disappointment, expectations and relationships. Despite the production's clever staging and strong ensemble performance, the show never makes the central character fully knowable, a disappointment after the prospect of intimacy. S
"Intimate Apparel" is at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn through May 20. Tickets are $32-$36. Call 282-2620 or visit www.barksdalerichmond.org.