Review: Villanova unveils well thought out ‘Intimate Apparel’

Sisi Wright in “Intimate Apparel” at Villanova Theatre. Photo by Paola Nogueras

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

For their second production of the 2017—2018 season, Villanova Theatre has chosen Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play INTIMATE APPAREL, a story of the struggles women (and blacks) faced in the early 20th century to be more than chattel. Directed by Valerie Joyce, Theatre Department Chair, the play runs on the University’s Vasey Stage  through Nov. 19. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.

Set in New York City in 1905, INTIMATE APPAREL tells the story of Esther, a black seamstress who longs to have a beauty shop of her own where black women will be treated as lavishly as white women. Her current clientele ranges from the wealthy society wives of the city to black prostitutes. Esther is known for her skill and, more importantly, her discretion; her work is in demand and she has managed to stuff a sizeable amount of money into a quilt on her bed. But she is lonely, and longs for love and marriage.

INTIMATE APPAREL was originally co-commissioned by Center Stage in Baltimore, MD and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA. The World premiere was at Center Stage, where it ran for a month, followed by another five weeks at South Coast Rep. Ms. Nottage’s work then came to New York for a limited run at the Roundabout Theatre in a production featuring Viola Davis in the lead. Since then, there have been numerous productions around the country. Ms. Nottage wrote the play after discovering her great-grandmother’s story— INTIMATE APPAREL’s plot parallels her great-grandmother’s life. In 1905, there was a great influx of European immigrants, Ellis Island had just opened and most of them came through New York. At the same time freed blacks were moving North and settling in cities such as New York. Nottage says she wanted to explore how these divergent cultures intersected and interacted. In addition to that, she beautifully elucidates the pain of loneliness; this viewing also made me think of how desperate we can get to love and be loved—and what we’re sometimes willing to put up with to get it.

Ms. Joyce’s direction is measured and sure, keeping the story moving at a good pace overall. Her staging makes full use of Gallagher’s set design, giving the piece an almost cinematic fluidity. The love and respect for the material is evident throughout, with these second-year grad students turning in well thought out performances.

Marissa Kennedy is delightful as the owner of the boarding house, Mrs. Dickson. Though a tiny young woman, she brought an “earth-mother” quality to her work that suits the production nicely. Kennedy has good comedic timing, getting her character’s zingers in just right, while still showing the heart beneath the sass. Kara Krichman does a terrific turn as Mrs. Van Buren, the dissatisfied upper-crust wife. She is intriguing to watch as she portrays her character’s ennui at the empty life she leads; following that up with a bittersweet moment as she laments her inability to conceive a child. Krichman’s bubbliness is infectious as she becomes Esther’s confidante and helper in the relationship with George Armstrong—the Barbadian Esther marries sight unseen after a lengthy correspondence. Brishan Miller has the right attitude as George—a proud alpha male upset at his inability to find work in the US. It is not an easy role because George turns out to be a cad. Miller balances the uglier aspects of the character with his proudful demeanor well, but he struggles with the West Indian accent and it intrudes on his ability to get completely invested in the character. Perhaps more time using the accent will free him up…

As Mayme, the “hooker with the heart of gold,” Alexandra King really struts her stuff. She brings a certain 21st century sensibility to her line delivery, but it works. King gives the audience a woman who is at peace with her life choices, she has no regrets. Her performance endeared the character to the audience. And she has a soulful singing voice that brings the ragtime songs of the era to life wonderfully. Nikitas Menotiades is absolutely compelling as Mr. Marks, the Hassidic fabric vendor. Menotiades imbues Marks with a lot of charm and humor, but clearly demonstrates the frustration that he cannot ever have the type of relationship with Esther he’d dearly like to have. He wrenches every bit of bittersweet pathos out of the character without once getting sappy.

Sisi Wright plays Esther, hardly ever leaving the stage. Her portrayal of Esther’s struggles and strength is presented with a maturity beyond her years. Every line and movement rings true as she gently takes the viewer on Esther’s journey.  There is a naivete to Ms. Wright’s portrayal, but she also shows us a woman who is smart and who never gives up. It is a deftly calibrated bit of acting.

As always, Villanova has assembled an extremely talented technical team to bring the world of the play to life. The multi-level unit set is the work of Joshua Gallagher; it represents three bedrooms: Esther’s at the boarding house in Greenwich Village, Mayme’s in an area known in 1905 as The Tenderloin (23rd—42nd, between 6th & 8th Avenues), Mrs. Van Buren’s Upper East Side brownstone and Mr. Marks’ fabric shop in the Lower East Side. Well placed exits and stairs allow the actors to either disappear with ease or smoothly move from one area to another. The presence of the three beds is of note; Nottage was also interested in the idea of how the bed impacts interactions. She feels sexual dynamics are always there, no matter the gender of those involved.

Villanova’s long-time Lighting designer, Jerold Forsythe turns in his usual thoughtful work, putting the focus where it needs to be, providing interesting transitions between scenes and evoking just the right mood. Adding to that mood is the combined work of John Stovicek’s soundscape and Peter A. Hilliard’s lovely ragtime musical interludes. Finally, Janus Stefanowicz does her always wonderfully detailed work in providing great costumes for the ensemble.  The corsets, in particular, are fabulous.

INTIMATE APPAREL is a beautifully written, heartfelt piece of theatre well worth seeing—there is much for today’s audiences to relate to.

When you go: Remaining performances are on November 9th thru the 18th at 8pm, and on the 19th at 2pm.  Villanova is located at 800 Lancaster Avenue, at the intersection with Ithan Avenue. To get to Vasey Hall, take that first entrance on Ithan.  For information and to make reservations, visit www.villanovatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474