'Intimate Apparel' Succeeds as Effective Melodrama
There's a lot to be said for the virtues of a compelling tale well told. It hearkens back to the initial reasons people get interested in narrative art in the first place: the seduction of story. While it's great that some plays have important messages and others are triumphs of style and wit, it's worthwhile to remember the considerable pleasures of investing in the trials and tribulations of a sympathetic character. Such is the appeal of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, receiving a solidly satisfying production right now at the Pasadena Playhouse.In 1905 New York City, African-American seamstress Esther (Vanessa Williams) is known particularly for her skill in crafting lingerie. She's saving up money to start up her own business someday, but in the meantime in her mid-thirties she feels that love may have passed her by. She's pleasantly surprised, then, to receive a letter from George (David St. Louis), a man she's never met who's working on the Panama Canal. They strike up an epistolary romance, aided by her amiable white client Mrs. Van Buren (Angel Reda) and her black friend Mayme (Kristy Johnson), who works as a prostitute. When George arrives in New York, however, reality proves different than her dreams.
Williams does a nice job of taking a character who is often soft-spoken and undemonstrative and conveying her emotions with piercing clarity. St. Louis has a role that by its very nature is played broadly, but he manages to give George unexpected depths and shadings. Reda is bright and amusing as the chirpy Mrs. Van Buren, and Johnson is moving as Mayme, a woman whose lot is worse than Esther's. Dawnn Lewis brings brassy charm to landlady Mrs. Dickson, and Adam J. Smith is superb as textile shop owner Mr. Marks in a subtle and moving performance.
Sheldon Epps' direction and all technical credits are professional but seem somewhat muted. I believe the success of Nottage's play is that, although it initially seems like it may be a social message play about the plight of African-American seamstresses in 1905, in fact it is a classic melodrama. This saga of an underappreciated woman dealing with the ups and downs of her love life is universal enough that you could change the ethnicities completely and it would still work. And it does work in the current production, which audiences will very likely enjoy.
"Intimate Apparel" plays at the Pasadena Playhouse through Dec. 2. Tickets are available online.