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Review: ‘Intimate Apparel’ at Villanova Theatre

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Villanova Theatre’s final production for 2017 is Intimate Apparel, directed by Valerie Joyce. The play, penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, tells the story of Esther Mills (played by Sisi Wright), an African-American seamstress in early 20th Century Manhattan.

Kara Krichman and Sisi Wright. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Kara Krichman and Sisi Wright. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Esther, who pines for a life of independence and romance, finds herself trapped by her cautious nature and the day-to-day tedium of her work. Wright, who effortlessly channels the dreamy heart of her character, guides the audience with grace through her tale of love, longing, betrayal, and redemption.

Intimate Apparel begins with Esther and her matriarchal landlord, Mrs. Dickson (Marissa Kennedy), discussing the pitfalls and practicality of marriage, then plunges the audience into an intricately woven world of language—filled with archaic phrases, flowery euphemism, and more than one instance of uproarious laughter. Kennedy captures Mrs. Dickson’s astute but caring nature perfectly in her reprimanding of Esther’s naïve notions of love and commitment.

Sisi Wright. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Sisi Wright. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Acting as counterpoint to Mrs. Dickson’s surrogate mother are Esther’s closest friends, Mrs. Van Buren, and Mayme, who act as equal parts angel and devil on Esther’s fraught shoulders.

Mrs. Van Buren, a bored New York socialite vying for her husband’s attention, is played by Kara Krichman, who artfully tempers Van Buren’s egotism with a touch of sadness. On the opposite side of the social spectrum is Mayme, a prostitute in Manhattan’s infamous Tenderloin District, brought emphatically to life by Alexandra King.

Rounding out the cast are Mr. Marks (Nikitas Menotiades), an Orthodox Jewish fabric shop owner, and George Armstrong (Brishen Miller), a Panama Canal laborer recently arrived in New York. Menotiades brims with clumsy charm as the romantic neophyte awkwardly courting Esther, whereas Miller’s take on the brooding and restless George underpinned the show in a disquieting dread.

In addition to the evening’s fine acting, Intimate Apparel also succeeds in saturating the audience in the smoky, seedy, and unforgiving world of Lower Manhattan, circa 1905, thanks in large part to Scenic Designer Joshua Gallagher and Costume Designer Janus Stefanowicz.

Throughout the night’s performance, I was struck by Nottage’s decision to situate most of the action in the characters’ various bedrooms—our most private space—away from the prying eye of life’s center stage. It is here where we find that a group as outwardly different as a poor black seamstress, a timid Jewish shopkeeper, and a privileged white socialite all wear masks for the public.

Intimate Apparel, however, is a glimpse into these character’s backstage personas, their bedroom selves—sans mask, sans makeup, where the black and blue boundaries we face following our heart’s most intimate desires are freely discussed.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Sisi Wright and Alexandra King. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Sisi Wright and Alexandra King. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Intimate Apparel plays through November 19, 2017 at Villanova Theatre, performing at Vasey Theatre – 800 East Lancaster Avenue, in Villanova, PA. Tickets may be purchased online.

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