- Terelle Jerricks
By Melina Paris
Lynn Nottage’s play, Intimate Apparel is a truly poignant story. It is currently showing at the Pasadena Playhouse through Dec. 2nd and is directed by Sheldon Epps, the Artistic Director at the playhouse.
Nottage won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Ruined and has garnered an OBIE award for a companion piece to Intimate Apparel titled, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine which takes place 100 years later. Intimate Apparel sensitively, realistically deals with human connections across race, gender, class, religious beliefs and mores. These characters have a strong desire to connect even if that necessitates going against societal customs, religion or the bond of trust.
The play’s center of gravity is Esther, a seamstress who relocated to Harlem with dreams of opening her own a beauty salon for black women in 1905 Harlem. A recent migrant from the South, a mere 40 years after the abolition of slavery, Esther is caught a midst a growing and thriving city on the verge of the Harlem Renaissance.
She works in a Harlem saloon creating and sewing the intimate apparel for the ladies who work there as well as one wealthy white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Angel Reda best known for her role as Elphaba from Wicked). One of those ladies is Mayme (Kristy Johnson, TV’s General Hospital), who along with Mrs. Van Buren befriends Esther. The exuberant landlady of the boarding house, Mrs. Dickson (Dawnn Lewis of 1990’s TV show A Different World), serves as a sort of mother figure, looking after Esther’s best interests.
Each of these women plays these roles so well. Mayme generously offers her expertise in matters of enticement. Mrs. Dickson is apprehensive for Esther. Esther, at 35 and on the road to spinsterhood, gets caught up in the passion of those letters and replies in kind, even though she’s unable to read or write. Mrs. Van Buren, who lives vicariously through Esther, helps Esther write those letters. Mrs. Van Buren’s southern belle persona and dramatic disposition offer some light comedy yet she is one hundred percent believable. You feel for her.
Esther also has two love interests pursuing her. One is George (David St Louis, TV’s Law and Order SVU), lured by the vast sums of money to help build the Panama Canal, carries on a long distance relationship by writing passionate letters to Esther.
A second love interest is Mr. Mark (Adam J. Smith, As the World Turns), a Romanian Jewish tailor. Though separated by religion and race, Esther and Mr. Mark are bound together by an appreciation for fine materials and exceptional craftsmanship. Through friendship they come to learn respect for the practices or decisions that tie into each one’s lifestyle even without completely understanding the reasons for it. The two form a connection that is not so easily dismissed.
George’s expressive letters keep coming to Esther declaring his desire to love, but more so to escape from the harsh reality working on the Panama Canal.
The roles of both George and Mr. Mark were played wonderfully. You could feel the tension and turmoil George carried in with him upon his entrance as a real person rather than a voice from a letter. His eventual nuptials to Esther is revealed to be a means to an end for him.
Mr. Mark played with a balance of delicacy and humor. Unspoken feelings unfolded like a dance progressing between him and Esther. A spark of interest is followed by curious steps toward each other, next retreating, and then gliding directly into the pleasure of uniting yet at the same time the impossibility of such an idea. All this is carried out over their conversations about the textiles, their work and their deepest beliefs.
The tension continues to mount. Esther makes a dizzying array of choices in reaction to the changes she is taken through in love, friendships and in business. She is a woman determined to carry out her life standing in her own truth even while each of her relationships are tested and some that were close to her now seem like strangers. Miss Williams plays this role with grace, and there are no huge dramatic scenes. She is just a woman trying her best to survive through these events with as much strength as she can muster. She does so beautifully.
Ultimately the rub in this story is the fact that this singular woman, whose life is not so different from many people’s, is not “identified” by the society in which she lives, works and contributes to everyday. Regardless though, Esther prevails as the hero in her own life.
Dec. 2 is the last day of Intimate Apparel’s at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Venue: Pasadena Playhouse
Location: 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena