Kristy Johnson and Vanessa Williams in a scene from "Intimate Apparel"… (Jim Cox )
Artists come in many varieties. There are those whose work appears in galleries and on stages. And then there are those whose work receives little public attention but is created with the same expressiveness, dedication to excellence and desire for meaning.
Esther, an African American seamstress living in a respectable New York City rooming house in 1905, belongs to the second category. A plain, unmarried 35-year-old with diminished prospects for personal happiness, she puts the best of herself into her sewing, making sexy garments for those who have more use for them than a spinster like herself.
And as assiduous as she is talented, she is moving ever closer to realizing her dream of opening up a beauty parlor with her earnings that will cater to the unmet needs of black women.
Her fate is the subject of Lynn Nottage's beautifully poignant play, "Intimate Apparel," now receiving a sensitive production at Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of artistic director Sheldon Epps.
Produced at South Coast Repertory in 2003, this character-based drama unfolds in the preferred manner of early 20th century stage fiction, with steady pressure applied to the protagonist's circumstances until a crisis forces the complete reassessment of all that has come to pass.
But this is no period piece. Esther isn't the type of character who would have interested Broadway and West End dramatists a century ago. It's not her modesty that's the problem — it's her skin color.
Stories like Esther's weren't the stuff of mainstream entertainment back then. To emphasize the point, the words "Unidentified Negro" are projected onto a screen at various points when the action is momentarily frozen into a photographic snapshot. In "Intimate Apparel," Nottage, best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Ruined," offers small but meaningful redress for this oversight.
The plot is something of a romance, though one harboring a bitter, if not unexpected, surprise. Esther, who is played with touching seriousness by Vanessa Williams (the actress who made her mark in "Soul Food," not the same-named star of "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives" fame), receives a letter at her rooming house. Deprived of suitors and with both parents dead, she can't imagine who it's from. She also can't read it, and must depend on others to decipher its contents and respond for her.
George (David St. Louis), the letter's author, is a canal digger in Panama who, having heard about Esther from her deacon's son, decides to start an epistolary courtship. Mrs. Dickson (Dawnn Lewis), Esther's exuberantly spirited landlady, can't help being dubious, knowing all too well how disappointing men can be.
But Mrs. Van Buren (Angel Reda), the unhappily married white woman Esther makes enticing lingerie for, and Mayme (Kristy Johnson), a saloon singer with loose morals who appreciates Esther's integrity, offer guidance. Before long George proposes, putting an end to Esther's single status, if not her loneliness.
"Intimate Apparel" relies on the intrigue it quietly brews. Better to enter its world without too much advance knowledge of the story, but it wouldn't be giving anything away to say that the most ardent relationship in the play isn't between husband and wife. There's another bond, a professional one, involving Esther and Mr. Marks (Adam J. Smith), a Jewish fabric merchant. Race and religion separate them, but diligence, craft and fine artistry draw them together.
Nottage, whose farcical "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" was recently at the Geffen Playhouse, is a stylistic chameleon, defined more by her subject matter (the predicament of black women across cultures and historical periods) than her form. The storytelling here is purposely old-fashioned, laden with exposition and perhaps containing one too many complications, but note the impressively modern way she subverts melodrama while raising the suspense.
Observe, also, how the playwright refuses to deny even supporting characters their complexity. This is a play in which there is villainy without villains. While the drama could benefit from some streamlining, Nottage magnificently exposes the contradictions and confusions that make simplistic labels unthinkable.
Epps' production, mounted on a set by John Iacovelli that is handsome though at times difficult to sort out, has a strong acting core. This is a work that demands restraint, and Williams, perhaps inspired by Esther's rectitude, doesn't succumb to attention-grabbing histrionics. Her performance is all the more poignant for the tears it holds back.
As Mayme, Johnson, who was memorably terrific in the South Coast Rep production of "Jitney" that was subsequently presented at Pasadena Playhouse, follows the playwright's lead in making a human being out of a so-called bad woman. Likewise, St. Louis is always more man than monster, even when George's callousness turns to cruelty. Smith has the intelligence to find Mr. Marks' seductiveness in his decency.
The most moving image in "Intimate Apparel" is, appropriately enough, a solitary one: Esther hunched over her sewing machine, all concentration and care, her future in her own magic hands, nobody else's. It's the portrait of an artist as an unknown black woman.
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Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El. Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends. Dec. 2.
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes