‘Mr. Marks’ (Adam J. Smith) enjoys the company of ‘Esther Mills’ (Vanessa Williams)

*The Pasadena Playhouse production of the award-winning Lynn Nottage period piece “Intimate Apparel” brings a small cast of talented thespians to its main stage. Set in New York City in 1905, the centerpiece of this story is Esther Mills, a shy, middle-aged, black seamstress who, though illiterate, taught herself how to sew beautiful and delicate lingerie for her uptown and downtown clientele. Lonely and vulnerable, she becomes taken with George, a handsome, young Caribbean man with a gift for words; displayed in the romantic letters he has begun to write her. After confiding in two of her patrons: Mrs. Van Buren, a rich white socialite; and Mayme, a prostitute, Esther gets them to compose her response to George’s letters.

But Esther’s heart also lies with another man; someone much closer to home. Mr. Marks, the Hasidic shopkeeper who quietly shares her warm feelings, but under the shadow of cultural reality, can only exercise those feelings through sharing his exquisite finds of satins and silks with her.  Esther settles for a marriage to George, who, in short order, manages to frivolously spend her life savings on whores and liquor – obliterating her dreams of opening a beauty salon. Once again penniless and alone, Esther reluctantly returns to her sewing machine to refashion her dreams from the cloth of her life’s experiences.

‘Esther’ thinks of ‘George’ (David St. Louis, in background, top of stairs)

The casting of Vanessa Williams and Adam J. Smith as “Esther Mills” and “Mr. Marks” respectively is brilliant; and each actor played their role exquisitely; delivering fully on the skill required to adequately expose the underlying complexities of their relationship; without compromising the restraint necessary to nurture their unspoken dialogue. Williams’ (“Soul Food,” “Lincoln Heights”) quiet dignity as “Esther” is apparent from the start; even when she isn’t audible her thoughts speak loud and clear. And through the awkward and sometimes downright painfully stilted movements of Smith’s (“Matter of Honor,” “Castle”) “Mr. Marks,” (a smart and effective character choice), we see a man so desperately wanting to step outside of the strict structure of his cultural history; but lacking the courage to do so.

Here, the actors speak on the instant connection they shared at the audition stage:

“There was just a certain chemistry that existed right away and I think in some ways all the stuff that’s now underneath the text, the first time we played it, was much more obvious and apparent,” says Adam J. Smith about his meeting with actor Vanessa Williams. Smith really came to appreciate the process director Sheldon Epps went through in covering up the initial energy the actors displayed and redirecting it to later reveal a stronger, underlying emotion.

“The challenge was scaling it back and not being able to show our hand prior to it getting to that,” says Vanessa Williams, who says she felt a strong connection to Smith, and his “Mr. Marks” character; adding that it fed right into premonitions she’d had about the play – and its cast.

Dawnn Lewis (“Dreamgirls,” “Sister Act-The Musical”) plays business owner “Mrs. Dixon” with gusto and flair. Not one to shy away from saying what she really thinks, (even when her opinions are unwelcomed), her love, concern and protective feelings for Esther comes through. Here, she shares how working with director Epps in theatre differs from when the two worked together in TV. She then elaborates on how she approached the character, Mrs. Dixon.

Dawnn Lewis as ‘Mrs. Dixon’

“When I worked with Sheldon [in TV] it was on an already moving train (“A Different World,” “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper”). We had our flow, we had the look of the show; each character had its own dynamic. So Sheldon was kind of conductor and engineer of a train that was already moving. Here, the difference is, this is now Sheldon’s train, and Sheldon’s vision, and he took six very individual people, in very individual circumstances tied together by Vanessa’s character and allowed each of us to fly on our own paths, toward the same goal, which was not easy to do because we rarely rehearsed together.”

In her approach to the character, she recalls the notion of ‘marrying up’ to acquire posture. “Socially…Mrs. Dixon being a successful business owner in the 1900s was not common. But she married into it, which was common…In order to do better; you must put yourself in a position to have better.”

Kristy Johnson (“Jitney,” “The Good Negro”) is delightful as “Mayme,” the prostitute who finds a nonjudgmental friend in Esther. Here, Johnson tells why she went after the role.

“After reading the script I knew I wanted to play Mayme,” says Johnson. “She is one of those characters who is multi-layered…complicated, and easy to judge not knowing what is underneath. And as an artist it’s the beautiful challenge of creating those layers. I always start with the heart; because deep down she is a person…who wants to be loved.”

The actors all seem to agree that in the end the play encourages questions; and audiences will see no absolute resolve in how these individuals “end up.”

David St. Louis (“Third Watch,” “Rent”) who was in the Pulitzer-prize winning play, “Ruined,” also written by Nottage; plays the role of “George” (with a terrific voice, not to mention a great Caribbean accent), the handsome suitor to Esther tells what he feels the essence of the play is about.

“In as much as the story is about love and the need to be loved, it’s also about dreams and success, and what that does to you – whether you achieve it or not.” He says he wonders how George’s actions would have differed if the cards were dealt another way.

Angel Reda (“Dangerous Beauty,” “Wicked”) plays rich, white socialite, “Mrs. Van Buren” with a sweet sense of jaw-dropping naïveté and seems to light up with purpose only when she is helping Esther write letters to George. Here, she tells of her appreciation for Epps’ skilled direction, and treatment of each actor as an individual.

“He was able to talk to us one on one, and really get to the heart of where we needed to be for this. Other directors would just treat actors the same…but you know, we’re all different; and getting to the bottom of something is often different for each of us. And we’re just very blessed to have him because he is very gifted in that. He brings out the best in me. I’m sure for everyone else as well.”

‘Mayme’ (Kristy Johnson) and ‘Esther’ (Vanessa Williams)

In addition to the astute direction of Sheldon Epps, who was nominated for “Best Director” at the 2012 NAACP Theatre Awards on November 5 for “Blues for an Alabama Sky” – which received 5 nominations (a total of 12 for another Playhouse production); the creative team on this production was absolutely awesome on all counts. John Iacovelli’s scenic design was beautifully crafted and imaginative (loved the moving floors!). The warm lighting design (especially effective in George’s letter-reading scenes as shown above) by Brian Gale was further enhanced by Steven Cahill’s sound design and the lovely costumes  by Leah Piehl.

“Intimate Apparel” plays Tuesday through Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101, through December 2, 2012. For more information visit the official website here.

DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles based journalist and communications specialist. Visit her website here.