Lost and Foundation: Mrs. Van Buren guides Esther through the wilds of romance.
Lost and Foundation: Mrs. Van Buren guides Esther through the wilds of romance.

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Item for discussion: dream-deferred-comma-ultimate-fate-of. Yeah, Langston Hughes already weighed in on this, but all he did was enumerate several possible outcomes. And when you look over his list (dry up, fester, stink, crust over, sag, or explode), it’s enough to make you reflexively reach for the nearest tube of Neosporin.

Perhaps a case study would shed some light. Esther (Deidra LaWan Starnes), the woman at the center of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, has a dream and—spoiler alert—it gets seriously wait-listed.

So let’s start with her: Subject is a 35-year-old, unmarried African-American seamstress at the turn of the 20th century who creates fashionable undergarments for women. Her client list ranges from Manhattan’s smart set (Susan Lynskey’s bored society dame) to its bedroom set (Annette Dees Grevious’ bawdy prostitute). Esther’s got a good, if not particularly comely, head on her shoulders, she’s very accomplished at what she does, she’s saving her money, and she’s got a long-range business plan. And lately she’s begun to make peace with the fact that she may never find a husband.

When a letter arrives from George (Zuanna Sherman), a lonely man she’s never met, Esther finds herself intrigued and responds. Sort of. Technically it’s not Esther who responds—she can neither read nor write. She asks her clients to help her compose decorously worded but increasingly romantic missives to George, and an extended courtship begins.

Thereby hangs Nottage’s tale, and African Continuum Theatre’s handsome production. Not kidding about the handsome: Klyph Stanford bathes his multilevel, multistage set in amber light that turns Diana Khoury’s intricate costumes—and the bolts of fabric that Esther purchases from a solicitous shopkeeper (Daniel Eichner)—into things of sumptuous and richly textured beauty.

Director Jennifer L. Nelson often has her actors fill two or more stages with simultaneous if strangely languid movement, creating living diptychs and triptychs that please the eye while underscoring the distances—physical and racial—that stretch between the characters. You’ll feel that distance again and again over the course of the evening; Nelson makes sure of it. As Esther and her clients read George’s letters, he appears far upstage, a mysterious figure cloaked in shadow. As you strain unsuccessfully to make out the actor’s features, don’t forget to keep an eye on Starnes, or you’ll miss the marvelous way she lets us see his every word shudder through her.

The scenes between Esther and Lynskey’s Mrs. Van Buren, a fading Georgia peach, are played to reinforce the unspoken but no less impenetrable barrier between a wealthy white woman and a black seamstress. There is warmth and real affection between them, but in those early scenes there’s also a limit, a hesitance: Both stop short of even placing a friendly hand on the other’s shoulder. (Watch Starnes here, too, as she fits Lynskey into her corsets and steps back to inspect the results with a cool analytical eye.)

But let’s back up a second. There’s a universal moral language that playwrights use to speak to us, one that’s been coded into the DNA of every piece of theater since Oedipus got so full of himself. Bad things happen when people transgress; that’s what drama is. It’s also why it resonates with us—we’re moral beings, so we sit there in the dark empathizing like crazy with the transgressor in question as she speeds headlong toward her increasingly inevitable fate. And when the comeuppance finally comes up, we feel it inside us like the solid, satisfying whump of a car door closing.

Not, sadly, here. The problem is that Nottage’s moral sense is so tidy, normative, and flatly asserted that you can always see her working the pulleys. Once you glom on to the implacable cause-and-effect schematic she’s imposed on Esther (and it’s impossible not to) you find yourself unconsciously and unwillingly anticipating the script’s every reveal and reversal. We watch Esther ignore the advice of her elder, a kindly landlady played with brio by Jewell Robinson, and we know that Esther will pay for it—and we have too good an idea just how. When we learn that George likes sex and doesn’t particularly care for church, we know it’s Nottage’s way of slapping a Snidely Whiplash moustache on the guy. And seriously: There’s one huge and hugely improbable coincidence in Act 2 that, try as you might, you can’t help but see coming miles away, barreling toward you down the center of Main Street in the midday snow.

Still, if Nelson’s staging was as nimble as it is eye-catching, it’d probably be easy enough to overlook the script’s tendency toward overt moral instruction. If we felt any sense of that headlong, heedless, speeding-toward-fate quality, we’d sit still, take our medicine and find a measure of comfort in watching Esther spring the various traps the playwright has set for her, one by predictable one.

Because there’s certainly no shortage of lovely moments on display, served up by actors and director. When Lynskey’s Mrs. Van Buren prepares to write a letter to George by spritzing the air before her with perfume and wafting a sheet of blank stationery languidly through the mist, her eyes gleam with delight. Starnes is expressively alive in every scene, whether she’s awkwardly attempting to throw herself at her husband or awakening to the realization that what she shares with Daniel Eichner’s shopkeeper is powerful, and dangerous. Jewell Robinson gets a chewy monologue and Grevious’ gleefully carnal delivery gets the laughs it deserves.

But because arranging all the actors in tableaux eats up lots of stage time, Nelson’s stately pacing works against the plot by giving us all the time in the world (well, three hours, anyway) to question Esther’s every choice. Protracted silences and scenes that go on far too long provide so much room for Esther to reflect and consider her options that what happens to her ends up seeming very, very evitable.

Which brings us back to our thesis question: What ultimately happens to a person’s hopes when they get shunted so roughly aside? The onstage evidence, although attractively mounted, is finally too rigid and overdetermined to bring us any closer to an answer; when the lights come up all we can say for certain is that Esther’s dream, like the production itself, remains a piece of unexploded ordnance.