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“Intimate Apparel” a perfect production

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Occasionally, a play comes along that is so beautiful, so perfectly produced, and so exquisitely performed it is difficult to describe. Such is the case with Kansas University Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel.”

The show, which opened April 3 and runs through the 11th, is easily one of the best that’s been onstage in Lawrence this season. That it was handled so deftly by actors who were mostly freshmen and sophomores and directed by a doctoral candidate rather than a seasoned professor makes it that much more extraordinary.

Nottage’s play is set in New York in 1905 and tells the story of Esther Mills (Ashley Kennedy), an African-American seamstress. At 35 and single, Esther has made a successful business sewing corsets. Her best customers are wealthy, white socialite Mrs. Van Buren (Margaret Marie Hanzlick) and African-American prostitute Mayme (Isabella Hampton). She’s been sewing for 18 years and has been putting away money she intends to invest in a beauty parlor for black women, specializing in what she calls, “the kind of service we deserve but no one will give us.”

But she yearns for love. Her boarding lady Mrs. Dickson (Alysha Marie Griffin) constantly attempts to set her up with men, but Esther is holding out for the right man. She doesn’t want to just settle, despite being plain and a spinster.

She has a special relationship with Mr. Mark (Christoph Nevins), who owns the fabric shop where she gets her materials. He’s the only person who really seems to share her passion for fabric and color. But he’s an Orthodox Jew betrothed to a woman who has not yet come to America from his native Romania.

And so, when she starts receiving correspondence from George Armstrong (Zechariah Williams), a Panamanian canal worker, she allows him to court her by mail. She can’t read or write, so she enlists Mrs. Van Buren’s aid in writing to him. Eventually, he proposes marriage and she accepts.

But once he comes to America and they are wed, they discover that neither of them is the person they believed. The dream of marriage for Esther and of American opportunity for George turns sour.

Each of the actors gives a pitch-perfect performance. Hanzlick’s Mrs. Van Buren is both enthusiastic in her desire to aid Esther and forlorn at her inability to have children and her loveless marriage. She is white and rich, but she is every bit as trapped by society as Esther, and Hanzlick conveys her misery and regret clearly without overdoing it.

Likewise, Hampton gives a strong but subtle performance as the burned-out prostitute Mayme. Hampton keeps the character vibrant but worn down by years of disappointment and unsatisfying work. We feel both her despair and her hope, and neither is overstated.

Williams gives Nottage’s words real lift. In the first act, his only lines are the letters he has written to Esther, and he recites them so poetically he makes it easy for us to understand how she could fall in love with this man she has never met — how she could accept a marriage proposal from him before even seeing him.

But it’s Kennedy’s portrayal of Esther that really makes “Intimate Apparel” soar. She understands the complexities of the character’s feelings, hopes and dreams exactly. As good as her delivery of lines is, it is her acting when not speaking that makes her performance so outstanding. In the first act, Williams is lit as George when he reads his letters, and Kennedy and anyone onstage turns to face him. Each time he speaks, Kennedy’s face lights up, transformed from the worry of her life as a spinster seamstress to that of a woman falling in love. Despite the focus of the scene being elsewhere, her reaction compels us to watch her. The intimacy of the Inge Theatre allows the audience to see the depth of her emotion.

She creates real chemistry with Nevins. In one scene, she wants to touch him even though she knows it’s forbidden. Her cautious approach and her hesitation before finally finding the courage to do it are achingly beautiful, and Nevins’s reaction of fear and joy at what it means is equally perfect.

The set is gorgeous. Rebecca Damren creates a single set that is divided into five distinct places. Only Esther moves from location to location. The other characters remain in their appointed spots until the second act when George first joins Esther at her apartment and then Mayme in hers. The spatial violation he commits helps portend the play’s tragic conclusion.

Part of the brilliance of Scott C. Knowles’s direction is it’s hard to tell where his instructions leave off and where the actors’ instincts begin. He’s crafted a perfect telling of Nottage’s story by casting the right people and putting them in a position to succeed.

“Intimate Apparel” is that rare, extraordinary play where everything is right. The story, the words, the acting, the lighting, the set, and the direction are all beautiful. It demands to be seen.

"Intimate Apparel" continues April 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11 in the William Inge Memorial Theatre at Kansas University. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except April 7, when it is at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $10-$15. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.kutheatre.com/12-13_season/IntimateApparel.shtml.

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