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Tender story of lonely seamstress comes to Sonora theater company stage

Jasmine Rush (left) and Emily Gatesman prepare for Sierra Repertory Theatre’s Intimate Apparel. The production will be at the East Sonora Theatre October 12-28.
Jasmine Rush (left) and Emily Gatesman prepare for Sierra Repertory Theatre’s Intimate Apparel. The production will be at the East Sonora Theatre October 12-28.

The story of a shy African-American seamstress with big dreams comes to the Sierra Repertory Theatre stage this weekend.

“Intimate Apparel” was written by playwright Lynn Nottage, who based the lead character of Esther on her great-grandmother. It plays Oct. 12-28 at SRT’s East Sonora Theatre.

Set in the early 1900s, the play follows Esther as she makes lingerie for both the wealthy of New York’s Fifth Avenue as well as those working in the city’s bordellos. Living in a boardinghouse, Esther — who has carefully saved her money over the years — watches as other boarders marry and move away. But she remains, alone with her dreams for a brighter future of opening a beauty parlor and finding a husband of her own.

Connected by a mutual acquaintance, she starts receiving letters from George, a Caribbean man working on the Panama Canal. As their connection grows via correspondence, it appears the two will marry, despite never actually meeting.

But there’s also a real connection with a Hasidic shopkeeper who sells Esther her fabric, although the impossibility of such a match is clear. Then, George turns up in New York and Esther learns he’s not the man he’s sold himself to be in his letters, setting her up for a devastating blow.

“As a director, there is nothing more thrilling for me than reading a play for the first time and getting goosebumps, tears, or even gasping out loud,” director Scott Viets said in a press release. “Exquisitely written with characters you can’t help but invest in, ‘Intimate Apparel’ skillfully balances beauty and poetry while at the same time being agonizingly real.

“I love a great play that continues to have impact worthy of discussion well after the curtain has come down and I can’t wait to have SRT audiences discover it.”

The cast is made up of Jasmine Rush as Esther, Landon Woodson as George, Nora Cole as Mrs. Dickson, Emily Gatesman as Mrs. Van Buren, Jerry Lee as Mr. Marks and Brittney Caldwell as Mayme.

“The play takes place in six bedrooms throughout New York City in 1905,” Lee said in the press release. “That was the first thing I noticed when I read the play, every scene had a bed in it. I felt really smart when later on I read somewhere that the playwright wanted to explore how having a bed in every scene would affect how the characters related to each other. Usually when you see a play or movie that takes place during this time period, it’s about people who are inundated with the turbulence of living in Manhattan during the Industrial Revolution. The hurly-burly of this play lies in the intimacy of our most private needs and thoughts. I think it’s a play about survival. Emotional survival.”

A Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” won the 2004 Steinberg New Play Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Outer Critics Circle Award. The role of Esther was originated by Academy Award-winner Viola Davis.

An opening night reception will be held Friday, Oct. 12, following the performance where the audience is invited to join the actors and SRT staff on the East Sonora Theatre patio. A post-show talkback will be held Friday, Oct. 19, with members of the cast. Both events are free with a ticket for that evening’s performance.

“Intimate Apparel”

WHEN: 2 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, Saturdays-Sundays; 7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Oct. 12-28

WHERE: Sierra Repetory Theatre’s East Sonora Theatre, 13891 Mono Way

TICKETS: $20-$25