PROVIDENCE — Lynn Nottage is an uncommonly versatile playwright who has ranged from the gut-wrenching drama of “Ruined’’ to the deftly pointed satire of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’’ to the turn-of-the-century social portraiture of “Intimate Apparel.’’
Whatever the genre, Nottage’s work is unified by a clear sense of artistic mission, notably her determination to investigate the lives of black women who might otherwise be relegated to the shadows of history. To the dramatization of their stories Nottage brings compassion, insight, and a firm belief that, to borrow a phrase, attention must be paid.
The Pulitzer-winning “Ruined,’’ seen in Boston at Huntington Theatre Company in 2011, is a powerful depiction of Congolese women battling to recover from rapes committed in the midst of civil war. “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,’’ produced at Lyric Stage Company last year, examines the career-stunting impact on African-American actors of Hollywood’s racial stereotyping.
With “Intimate Apparel,’’ now at Trinity Repertory Company, Nottage offers a quietly affecting portrait of Esther, a black seamstress in 1905 New York who is trying to construct a life of fulfillment and meaning amid social and personal circumstances that make it an uphill struggle.
The production hits a few bumps of its own. Directed by Janice Duclos, a member of Trinity Rep’s resident acting company for nearly three decades, “Intimate Apparel’’ is exposition-heavy in spots. Nottage’s script sometimes crosses the line from well written (which it generally is) to overwritten, and leans dangerously close to melodrama in its most heated moments. Gaps in emotional logic undercut a couple of key scenes.
But in Esther the playwright gives us a fully realized character of a kind — unheralded, undervalued, the cog rather than the big wheel — that we don’t often see represented onstage. She is sensitively portrayed at Trinity Rep by Mia Ellis, who played the dual roles of Francine and Lena in the company’s razor-sharp 2011 production of “Clybourne Park.’’ Ellis’s Esther is a moving balance of pragmatism and romantic longing, outward self-possession and inward struggle.
In her mid-30s and single, Esther lives with other unmarried women in a rooming house, run by Mrs. Dickson (Barbara Meek). Esther considers herself plain-looking, with few marital prospects. Professionally, though, it’s another story: She is a gifted seamstress, capable of artistry when she sits down at her sewing machine. Esther has a comfortable rapport — maybe strictly business, maybe not — with Mr. Marks (Mauro Hantman), an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from Romania from whom she purchases silk and wool to make clothing for her customers.
Esther’s ultimate ambition, the goal toward which she has assiduously stuffed a considerable amount of her earnings in her quilt over more than two decades, is to open a beauty parlor for black women. “Someplace east of Amsterdam, fancy, where you get pampered and treated real nice,’’ she explains to her freewheeling friend Mayme (Shelley Fort). “ ’Cause no one does it for us. We just as soon wash our heads in a bucket and be treated like mules. But what I’m talking about is someplace elegant.’’
Romance beckons in the form of George, a laborer from Barbados whom Esther has never met but with whom she begins a long-distance correspondence. George is portrayed by Joe Wilson Jr. with all the compelling force that exemplary actor has at his command. Esther’s letters to George are actually penned by one of her white customers, Mrs. Van Buren (Angela Brazil, in a characteristically acute performance), because — in a reminder of the social constraints African-Americans faced in the early 20th century — Esther can neither read nor write.
When George comes to New York, the story of “Intimate Apparel’’ goes in a direction that, while fairly predictable, is nonetheless absorbing because it requires Esther to call on her considerable inner resources. The issues of race, class, gender, immigration, upward mobility, and social justice percolate through this drama, but it’s Esther’s individuality and intensity of feeling that stay with you. In the end, this woman who makes beautiful clothing for a living shows us what she herself is made of.