Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, center, directs a… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Robin Givens is stirring on an antique divan, waking with a wicked hangover to several harsh realities. At least she's not alone. Sheldon Epps, who may be one of the calmest and most self-possessed men in show business, is sitting not 12 feet away.
Epps is there to guide Givens — who became a 1980s sitcom star, then saw her marriage and divorce from boxer Mike Tyson turn into a public soap opera — and the rest of the cast of "Blues for an Alabama Sky." Pearl Cleage's 1995 drama, set in Harlem during the Great Depression, examines the gumption and talent it takes to hold on to one's dreams and integrity when times are lean and how easily they can be snuffed out.
Epps is in his 15th season as artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse. He picked this show because the aspirations and obstacles of these five fictitious black people from 80 years ago are likely to reflect the lives of a whole gamut of people right now.
As the rehearsal unfolds in a makeshift studio in a derelict furniture warehouse that itself represents one of the playhouse's frustrated dreams, it becomes apparent that Epps, 57, sees in his mind's eye precisely how he'd like this scene to go. It's also apparent that the actors trust his advice whenever he rises to steer them in a soft, gentle voice.
Givens' challenge is to master moment-by-moment emotional choreography as her character, nightclub singer Angel, begins to remember the night before, when she lost her job, her apartment and her Italian mobster sugar daddy in a single stroke. "Yep. Yep, yep, yep," she agrees, after Epps says Angel's first instinct is to resist rising to face what's happened. Running the scene again, Givens adds a telling grimace of morning-after agony and dawning recognition, and the director rewards her with a chuckle. .
Few theater companies seem better qualified at this moment than the Pasadena Playhouse to dramatize disruption amid straitened circumstances and the faith and tenacity it takes to carry on. It's the first show Epps has directed at the playhouse in more than two years. For eight months of 2010 there were no shows at all as his job shifted from staging plays to figuring out with the board and executive director Stephen Eich how to engineer the organization's survival.
Friends Epps had made in his concurrent career directing episodes of TV series such as "Frasier" and "Girlfriends" read about his company's plight and called him out of the blue, pledging $1 million. That hastened its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a reopening in October 2010 on a one-show-at-a-time basis. By spring, enough stability had returned to announce the five-play 2011-12 season now underway.
"Blues for an Alabama Sky" opens Sunday; also on tap are revivals of "Art" by Yasmina Reza; "The Heiress," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's adaptation of Henry James' novel "Washington Square"; and the premiere of a musical version of the film "Sleepless in Seattle." Critics panned the September premiere of "South Street," a musical set in a Philadelphia tavern, but playhouse board chair Michele Engemann said it was a crowd-pleaser, with sales "beyond our expectations."
"The joy and energy he maintained in the midst of that darkness was infectious, and that's ultimately how [the playhouse] survived," said playwright-director Charles Randolph-Wright, Epps' friend of more than 10 years. "I'm so proud of how he weathered that storm."
In the months it was dark, Epps made sure to sit twice a week in the empty, 684-seat house he calls a "grand old lady." The Spanish Colonial Revival auditorium has stood since 1925, predating all its current Los Angeles peers as a leading noncommercial stage. Here, generations of actors including Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Raymond Burr and Sally Struthers honed their art in the university-level training program it housed until 1969, when the money ran out and the theater closed for 17 years.
Sitting alone to meditate in a darkened theater was perhaps an odd thing to do, Epps says, but "for me, it was a way of keeping it alive. Somebody was in here, and if it was only me, someone was imagining the lights being on."
Introduced at 11
The personal stakes went way back. In 1964, a busload of kids from Los Angeles had alighted at the playhouse to see Ethel Waters perform one of her signature roles, in Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding." Little Sheldon, a preacher's son, was 11, and it was his first play.