Elegant writing, a fascinating place and time, and an African-American heroine rarely given center-stage status transform Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel from soap opera to Outer Critics Circle Award-winning drama, as Los Angeles audiences can now (re)discover in its impeccable big-stage revival at the Pasadena Playhouse.
It’s in 1905 Manhattan that we make the acquaintance of 35-year-old spinster seamstress Esther Mills (Vanessa Williams), afforded economic independence by the frilly corsets she confections and sells to millionaire white women and black prostitutes alike, two of whom we meet, as we do Esther’s equally independent African-American landlady Mrs. Dickson, the Orothdox Jewish merchant who sells Esther her silks and laces, and the West Indian Panama Canal worker with whom Esther begins a correspondence that soon turns into long-distance love.
Unable herself to read or to write, Esther turns to her two best clients, statuesque blonde beauty Mrs. Van Buren (Angel Reda) and gorgeous café-au-lady of the evening Mayme (Kristy Johnson) for help in corresponding with George Armstrong (David St. Louis), whose poetic billets doux turn the tightly-bunned head of plain, past-her-prime Esther and convince her to accept her lovestruck suitor’s proposal of marriage despite the disapproval of her landlady (Dawnn Lewis) and the romantic feelings she harbors for cloth merchant Mr. Marks (Adam J. Smith)
Like August Wilson’s Gem Of The Ocean, Nottage’s Intimate Apparel provides a rare glimpse into African-American lives in the first decade of the last century, a mere forty years after the American Civil War and a full half-century before Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement in 1955.
Life in the New York City metropolis does allow Esther a self-sufficiency and freedom that her Southern sisters could only dream of at the time, and if her skill as a seamstress comes with not nearly as many strings attached as Mrs. Van Buren’s and Mayme’s quite different lives, no early-20th-Century woman of any color would want to find herself unmarried at thirty-five, even in big city New York. No wonder, then, that Esther shows only the slightest hesitation in marrying George sight-unseen upon his arrival in America.
Still, as any Lifetime Movie-For-Women fan can predict, marriage to a total stranger is hardly likely to be all Esther has hoped for, particularly marriage to the brawny hulk of a six-footer she discovers is nowhere near the refined gentleman his love letters have made her expect.
Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director, whose exquisite Blues For An Alabama Sky won him a Best Director Scenie last year, returns to direct the marvelous Intimate Apparel with equal finesse—and a dream cast of L.A.-based actors.
Williams, best known for her starring roles in Melrose Place and on the Showtime series Soul Food, proves herself a stage actress of power, grace, and depth in the role that won Viola Davis the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress In A Play and could easily score Williams an Ovation or LADCC nomination as well.
Supporting cast members are equally terrific. Stunning musical theater performer Reda has no need to sing or dance in order to do standout work as Mrs. Van Buren, whose beauty and smarts would have insured financial independence had she too been born in the late 20th Century and not at a time when marriage to a rich man was a young woman’s only path to a comfortable life. Lewis, last seen at the Playhouse burning up the abbey in Sister Act, does rich, gritty work as Mrs. Dickson. Johnson is absolutely captivating as Mayme, a young woman whose piano-playing gifts and Essence cover girl looks could easily have brought her fame and fortune had she been born a hundred years later.
As for the men, no one plays menacing better than St. Louis, who gives us a deeply flawed but three-dimensional George, and the always excellent Smith counters with a strong and gentle Mr. Marks who would clearly be Esther’s Mr. Right in another place and time.
All that gets in the way of an audience’s complete involvement in Esther’s story are the heavy accents that make African-American and Barbadian characters an occasional challenge to understand.
Not surprisingly, with a design team as stellar as scenic designer John Iaccovelli, costume designer Leah Piehl, lighting designer Brian L. Gale, and sound designer Steven Cahill on board, the Pasadena Playhouse gives its audiences a production that looks and sounds every bit as splendid as what you’d expect to see on a Broadway stage.
Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Hethyr Verhoef is stage manager and Jessica R. Aguilar assistant stage manager. Joe Witt is production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, and Kristen Hammack company manager.
Having just reviewed Nottage’s latest, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, I was excited to discover the play that first brought the Pulitzer Prize winner to national attention. This reviewer’s verdict: Intimate Apparel lives up to its reputation…and then some.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
November 11, 2012
Photos: Jim Cox