BWW Review: SWEAT is a Heartbreaking Look at Blue Collar America
SWEAT is a 2015 play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2017 Obie Award for Playwrighting. The play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and subsequently was produced Off-Broadway in 2016 and on Broadway in 2017. The play is centered on the working class of Reading, Pennsylvania. Nottage began working on the play in 2011 by interviewing residents of the town, which at the time was, according to the United States Census Bureau, officially one of the poorest cities in America, with a poverty rate of over 40%.
Set in 2008 and flashing back to 2000, the play portrays a meeting between a parole officer (Tarik Daniels) and two ex-convicts, Jason (Graham Dickerson) and Chris (Ryan Sterling Smith). These two men are the sons of Cynthia (Nikki Redlin) and Tracey (Suzanne Balling) who were childhood friends and now are working in the same factory along with another long time friend, Jessie (Alexandra Nicole Marosis) and their sons. The action takes place in a fictional bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, a town that has been described as being synonymous with deindustrialisation. Using the dramatic tool of flashback, Nottage shows the blue color world where your job can suddenly go overseas, destroying lives and cities. The characters have the anger and desperation that created the type of Anericans who voted in Donald Trump as President.
SWEAT gives a powerful glimpse into the conditions that breed racism, tinged with white privilege, created when there is no longer respect for the craft of blue collar workers. The play is a heartbreaking look at what happens when corporate America values the dollar over the lives of workers and when great industrial cities fail. It also examines the disintegration of a friendship that sometimes happens with the management/worker dynamic begins to separate friends, creating racial tensions that separate them even further.
Director Kat Sparks has done a great job with this script, focusing on character dynamics. Written cinematically, there are a lot of scene changes which don't move as fast as they should, mostly due to the limitations of the venue. The set, by Elisa Stancil, is utilitarian, and contains a very clever side stage area that functions as a space out behind the bar that is a patron smoking area. Costumes by Veronica Dobell Prior are great for the period and especially are effective in the case of the character of Brucie (Stan McDowell).
The performances here are the strong point of this production. Graham Dickerson, as Jason, makes a strong Austin debut. Steve Wright gives a heartbreaking performance as Stan, the injured factory worker turned bartender. Stan McDowell is touching as Brucie, a factory worker long out of a job. Suzanne Balling delivers another riveting performance as Tracey, who makes a descent into hell when the factory sends jobs to Mexico. Alexandra Nicole Marosis is both hilarious and painfully tragic as the drunken Jessie. Nikki Redlin makes her theatre debut in this production and is unfortunately miscast. She is far too young to play Cynthia making her speeches about her son being in college completely unbelievable. She does manage to hold her own against all these seasoned professionals, but doesn't quite come up to the emotional demands of the role.
In summation, SWEAT is a passionate and highly emotional examination of identity, race, economy and humanity that has an important message about the world we live in today. This is another strong offering from Southwest Theatre Productions that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
SWEAT by Lynn Nottage
Running Time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours including intermission.
SWEAT, produced by Southwest Theatre Productions at Santa Cruz Center for Culture (1805 E. 7th Street, Austin, TX, 78702).
January 18 - February 03, 2019, Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m.
Tickets $23 general admission, $20 students, plus service fees
Tickets available on-line at swtproductions.com/tickets