BWW Reviews: Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel Graces Stage at Pasadena Playhouse
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by Don Grigware
Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage takes great pride in the survival of black women through the ages. In her Pulitzer winner Ruined, it's how Congolese women have survived civil war, in her newest By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, it's blacks' struggles in the acting profession, and in Intimate Apparel, her most widely known play, it's a black seamstress who must fight for recognition and love at the turn of the 20th century. Now onstage in a handsome revival at the Pasadena Playhouse, Intimate Apparel has taut direction from Sheldon Epps and a stellar cast led by luminous Vanessa Williams as Esther.
Seamstress Esther is a lonely spinster, living in a New York boarding house circa 1905, afraid to correspond to the amorous proposal of a laborer in Panama George Armstrong (David St. Louis). Unable to read, she seeks the advice and help of three women: her landlady Mrs. Dickson (Dawnn Lewis), a white, rich but unhappy young society matron Mrs.Van Buren (Angel Reda) and a young prostitute who dreams of being a concert pianist Mayme (Kristy Johnson). Mrs. Dickson sees through the man's desires to come to New York City and advises Esther to ignore him, believing that she deserves better. The other two are more encouraging and help her to write her responses. There is an eventual marriage between two people who hardly know one another, and the catastrophes that result form the core of the play. There is another man in the picture Mr. Marks (Adam J. Smith), a Jewish tailor from Rumania, from whom Esther buys fabric for the clothes she makes. Bred to a life of pure tradition, Marks keeps buried his attraction to Esther, and she her deep fondness for him. Sad, as a relationship between them might work out.
Esther, more plain than pretty, is practical, sensible. She knows the right way to behave in all situations. She is ideal in every way. The perfect catch for any sound man! Yet she suffers. And because she is black, even more indignity.
Epps directs with a finely tuned pace and makes pure magic with Williams as Esther. She so beautifully evokes Esther's simplicity and ability to adjust emotionally under any adverse conditions. This is a stunning performancE. Lewis, Reda and Johnson are all wonderful in their portrayals. Each woman is distinct but with an elusive longing, like that of Esther; each grabs what she can or tries and loses, with Mrs. Dickson's strength and wisdom prevailing. St. Louis soars with Armstrong's brutishness as does Smith with Marks' gentility and sweetness. John Iacovelli's lush set design suits the dreamlike, far away quality of the women's aspirations, and Leah Piehl's costumes, Brian L. Gale's lighting and Steven Cahill's sound design that includes rousing ragtime music add dynamic touches.
Intimate Apparel is an absorbing story, a lovely piece of poetry that speaks universally to all women about love, trust and values, but especially to black women, who have indeed been forced unjustly to suffer heavier burdens. Survival entails an astounding optimism. In an intro before the opening night performance one of the speakers onstage put it best "Success is not permanent and failure is not fatal".