Spotlighters has showcased a fascinating play about small town America- and what happens when progress dims the edges of friendship. Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat has seen critical acclaim over the last four years, and has been done by other companies many times over. The reason the play is so prevalent is actually not because of its development, characters, etc.- it is simply that it speaks truths we don’t want to hear.
Sweat is about a factory in Reading, Pennsylvania. The play takes place in a bar around the corner from the factory where workers come to blow off steam and have a pint or two. Many of them have legacies in this town- their grandfathers worked here, their parents, and their children are applying for jobs on the line as well. When one of the women gets a promotion over her friend, and the factory starts locking out workers, things shift quickly from a fun upbeat place to hang, to a divisive line about race, culture, and the reality of factories and our economy.
Sound design by Darlene Harris, Jack Wefso, and Brad Rommo, offer various voice overs between scenes to contextualize the time and place. Often they name the date first (because the play shifts among an eight-year period), and then reads one or two headlines from our nation, ending with a specific piece of local news for Reading. This helps to alleviate confusion as we leap into the future and past, but also sets a surreal tempo of the times.
Timothy Andrews plays Evan, a parole officer who is checking in with Chris and Jason as they are re-entering society. He doubles as Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband. The dichotomy of this divide is staggering- in one he is a straight laced officer in crisp shirt and shoes, and in the other a strung out man who has turned to darker things- drugs and alcohol- to try and fill the void of losing his job at a local factory. Andrews changes himself so much, if I didn’t consult the program, I might have thought them similar looking actors and not the same man.
Jack Wefso portrays Jason, the son of a local factory worker (Tracey) who takes a job at the factory also and plans his life among the pints at Stan’s place. He is going to work there until he retires- then open a Dunkin Donuts in the South. His alter ego of course is the eight year in the future Jason who has Aryan nation facial tattoos, and has done time, lost his job, and drifts looking for stability. Wefso’s performance is characterized by fury. He is loud, over the top, and disagreeable at points- but he is also exactly what the role calls for- a problematic character that you don’t want to like, but you try desperately to understand.
Wefso’s counterpart, Chris, is portrayed by Rysheem McGirt. A large man who fills the space with his presence. Where Wefso is loud and dramatic, McGirt offers a quieter, more compassionate contemporary. His character wants more- to go to college, to get out of this town. The other characters chide him for his lofty dreams, but he is determined to make it despite his surroundings. What we see in the quiet arc of McGirt is heart breaking. A man who has aspirations, and is in the wrong place at the wrong time, victim to his circumstances, and now fighting to stay above water. McGirt does a lovely job of bringing this character fully to life and letting us feel his anguish.
The three ladies at the center of this play are the local bar flies, Sharon Carter (Cynthia), Margaret Condon (Tracey), and Amie Bell (Jessie). Each woman has her distinct marks but the three have a rhythm in the beginning that establish their lives and routines. Carter takes front and center as Cynthia, the one whose husband left in the middle of the night taking her Christmas presents and tropical fish with him. She is also the one who gets the promotion, and starts the divide among friends. Carter is a natural, and at times seems like someone I know- hanging out in the bar, a quip for everything, hustling along and trying to make the best of cards laid in front of her. She is best when she is being raw and real with her son and husband, but stands out in her trio scenes with the ladies as well.
Condon has the difficult task of being the mother of the wayward Wefso, and harboring some inequities of her own. She is likable, and her and Stan have a friendly relationship but she also demeans the bus boy for being Hispanic, and has some scenes that are cringe-worthy. Condon does what all actors strive to do, make a believable and unforgettable performance even if the character is unsavory. Her sidekick is the lush, Jessie, played by Amie Bell. She drinks her way through life and all the other characters remark about rehab and helping, but no one does. She sobers up in the second half once she looses her job and can’t afford to get hammered every night anymore. Bell has some truly lovely stand out comedic moments and comes across less of a mess and more of an endearing persona of blue collar America.
The bartender, Stan, is Steven Gillilan. His return to the stage after a hiatus is commendable. His commitment to the limp, a factory accident that caused him to manage bar instead, is the center of his design. Most of his time on stage is spent trying to look busy behind a small bar- the limits of space in the round. But Gillian comes front and center in his show stopping piece of action, and his amazing transformation at the end of the play.
The standout of the evening is the quiet and unassuming busboy, Oscar, played by Alex Pecas. He not only has a booming voice that was unexpected, but shines slowly, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, by his transformation at the end. And his zinger that closes the play, “that’s what you are supposed to do,” is a quip that ends up haunting the audience as they leave. Is he inferring that the parents and children of this play end up so disenfranchised because they don’t look out for one another? Is he inferring that Cynthia doesn’t look out for friends as the factory ships jobs to Mexico? Or is it even deeper- that people should take care of other people- not treat them like shit because of their culture, their job or lack of, and not feel that they are “owed” something because of family legacies and entitlement? Although Trump’s name is never mentioned in the play, it speaks volumes about many of the divides his presidency has caused among the populace.
The design team did a nice job, and a laborious one, of making the set a bar, but shifting it occasionally to depict a parole office and other locations. Tess Bierk as the Stage Manager, and Carolyn Robinson as the Assistant Stage Manager have to navigate the dark several times to break and re-set the stage. Lighting by Al Ramer keeps the focus tight and tries to shadow all those set breaks. Alan Zemla creates a believable small town bar room and Laura Nicholson keeps costume modern and simple, in keeping with the themes of the play.
My only complaint about this performance was the length. It was billed in the program as 2 hours and 20 minutes for a running time. Generally, a running time includes the intermission time- one scheduled for fifteen minutes-but I am not sure this did. Add a theater hold, a lengthy curtain speech, and few sluggish moments, it was three hours. It is a powerful piece but on a Thursday where I worked all day, and a Friday where I worked again, this was more than I bargained for with my night. And despite a fire cast and fabulous story, I found myself yawning toward the end (no offense- I couldn’t help it!) I am not sure if the logistics need to be looked at a little harsher, or if the pace could be quickened a bit, but man was that a long show for a tired old lady.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go see this provocative piece of theater that is not your standard offering from Spotlighters. The story depicts an American tragedy and follows an arc not unlike The Great Gatsby, in its struggle with money, legacies, families, fate, and misfortune. The actors deliver a powerful performance that will linger in your mind long after the curtain call. (I)
Running through October 6th. Running time about three hours with one fifteen-minute intermission.