Kelly McCreary first saw Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in 2004 when Roundabout Theatre Company gave the play its New York debut. That production starred Viola Davis as Esther Mills, an African-American seamstress living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century who dreams of one day owning her own beauty parlor.
Thirteen years later, Nottage has two Pulitzer Prizes under her belt (for Ruined in 2009 and Sweat in 2017), and McCreary, who has played virtuosic cardiothoracic surgeon Maggie Pierce on Grey's Anatomy since 2014, is using her summer break from shooting to try her own hand at Esther Mills in the Bay Street Theater production of Intimate Apparel, running now through July 30.
"When I started my career, I thought of myself as strictly a theater actor," says McCreary, who made her Broadway debut in 2008 as an understudy in the Tony-nominated musical Passing Strange. "Now I see, crossing through the mediums, that storytelling doesn't really change that much."
What has changed is McCreary's own breadth of experience, which is helping her see Intimate Apparel with fresh eyes. "I thought it was beautiful then," she says, referring to her Roundabout experience in 2004. "But coming back to it this time around with a little more compassion and empathy for other people, the play has exploded for me in a completely different way."
How did this production of Intimate Apparel come your way?
Scott Schwartz, the artistic director at Bay Street, has had this on the docket for some time. I work in television for most of the year and I was looking for a play to do this summer. I was looking for a really rich and full character, and Esther Mills is one of the most complex and finely drawn characters I've ever gotten to play. And her story is supported and surrounded by the stories of other incredible characters. So I thought, "This is exactly what I asked for." And I get to be in Sag Harbor for the summer! The fact that our production coincides with this moment that Lynn is having is kind of a coincidence.
Lynn Nottage has had a banner year, with her new play Sweat earning both the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony nomination for Best Play. Did you have a chance to see Sweat while it was in New York?
I actually saw it first at the Public and then saw it again on Broadway. Michelle Wilson [Tony nominee for Sweat] is a dear friend of mine. Intimate Apparel and Sweat are both plays that put characters in incredibly relatable situations. They're still extreme situations, but Lynn writes so that you see the characters go through every range of the experience. At some point they're the villain, at some point they're the victim, at some point they're the hero, at some point they are completely at sea. That's what she is great at.
What are the new things you've learned about Esther, having spent some time in her skin as opposed to just seeing her from an audience?
One of the first things I discovered revisiting the play this time was Esther Mills's participation in her own sort of self-delusion. That disconnect between how we think of ourselves and how we treat ourselves — what we go after in life, and how sometimes when we get what we want, it isn't actually the thing that we need. That is something that is really resonating with me right now.
Esther is in every single scene of this play. As you shift gears from television back to theater, has that been an added challenge?
It took me a minute to get my theater stamina back. We only had two-and-a-half weeks to rehearse before getting into the theater, and there's not a moment to lose. You want to be present and playing and experimenting and digging really deep in every single moment of rehearsal, and when you don't get a scene off, that requires a great deal of energy. But quite frankly, this story is life-giving. I relish every moment of being in Esther's shoes and finding out what is driving her and connecting with the other actors and characters and discovering the layers of those intimate relationships, so it's just been an absolute joy.
After spending most of your time in the modern world of Grey's Anatomy, do you enjoy diving into an early 20th-century period piece like this?
It's awesome. I have never done a corset play before! I've loved doing the research on this time period — Progressive Era New York City. There was so much happening in New York at that time. The industrial revolution, unions being formed, the migration from the south, immigration from all over the world booming like crazy — New York was a really thrilling place to be. It's been awesome to walk around the City and try to imagine it through Esther's eyes. That's been one of my favorite parts of this process.
For people who know nothing about that slice of history, what is it about Intimate Apparel that they can connect to?
This is a story about people connecting to one another across sociopolitical and cultural boundaries. It's a story about immigrants, it's a story about ambition, and it's a story about finding love for yourself. If those aren't themes that everybody can relate to, then I'm not really sure what play to recommend.
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