BWW Review: Lynn Nottage's SWEAT Proves a Worthy Debut for Humanity Theatre Project
Sweat - Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play - is one of the most trenchant and evocative contemporary dramas to come down the theatrical turnpike since the advent of the so-called Trump Era and, as presented by Humanity Theatre Project (in its first-ever full production of its two years of existence), is one of the most compelling plays to be presented in recent memory. Focusing on the down-at-heels habitues of a working class neighborhood tavern in Reading, Pennsylvania at the turn of this century, the story told by the brilliant and prolific Ms. Nottage is universal, its topicality as potent today as it was when the play first debuted at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015.
Focusing on the impact of the world's economic climate on the common people who gather in the bar after work most nights, Sweat (which is set in 2000 and 2008) rings with the authenticity theater audiences have come to expect from Nottage's work. Her characters are created with care and deference, their dialogue written with a sense of understanding and unwavering truth, ensuring that the situations in which they find themselves have a dramatic impact that's difficult to shake off long after the final curtain.
Opening in 2008, during separate meetings between a parole officers and two recently released inmates under his watchful eye, Nottage's searing play then takes audiences back to 2000 to show us the events leading up to the incident for which the two young men were sent to prison. Jason (played with self-righteous anger and genuine regret by Gabe Atchley) comes back to his old neighborhood, sporting Aryan Brotherhood tattoos on his cheeks, while Chris (portrayed by Preston Crowder with seemingly sincere contrition and concern) has reentered society with a Bible in his hand after finding the redemptive power of Jesus inside. Jason and Chris in 2008 are far different from the fresh-faced, feckless boys we meet in 2000, when both are employed at the mill where generations of Reading folks have toiled in thankless, if well-paying, blue collar jobs over the years.
And even if the play takes place mostly in 2000 (the opening scene set in 2008 creates a sense of mystery around the question of what Jason and Chris must have done to end up in prison), it paints a vivid picture of life in these United States at this very moment in time that's filled with antipathy, animosity and total bewilderment of how we have ended up where we are in 2019.
We are introduced to the friendly and paternal bartender Stan (Scott Stewart, one of Nashville's best known actors, takes on another role that seems written expressly for him), who welcomes the various customers in his bar with a cordial greeting and plenty of libations as they try to slough off the rigors of their factory jobs and the realities of their working class lives. As Oscar (the Columbian-American barback played with confidence by Diego Gomez) goes about the bar, performing any number of menial tasks, the class differences - apparent even among the working people of Reading, particularly the descendants of European immigrants who view Latin immigrants with suspicion and distrust - become apparent, underscoring what transpires during the course of the play with a palpable sense of reality.
When first we find ourselves in the bar on January 18, 2000, it is in the midst of the birthday celebration for Tracey (Jason's mom, played with much-needed volatility and commitment by Ang Madaline-Johnson) who's accompanied by her two best friends, the heavy-drinking Jessie (Jenny Norris plays against type with her performance) and the pragmatic and ambitious Cynthia (Chandra J. Walton delivers another impressive performance in the role), who also are her co-workers from the plant. The camaraderie of the three women is richly drawn, their friendship extending far beyond the confines of the factory and the barroom, to indicate their connection extends far, wide and deep in their shared lives.
But at a time in their lives when "you could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico," thanks to NAFTA, Wall Street and politicians loath to speak the truth about a changing world economy, you can be certain troubled times and tragedy lie ahead. It's a thoroughly involving, thought-provoking theatrical event that's reflective of the times in which we live and, perhaps more to the point, paints a vivid picture of those Rust Belt voters who seem to have voted against their own self-interests when they delivered the presidency to the current occupant of the White House. Early on, you can recognize the factors that led them to the voting booth in 2016.
The interaction of the three women is so real that audiences may feel somewhat voyeuristic over the course of the play's almost three hours of action (save for a 15-minute intermission between the acts and scene transitions that have a tendency to drag). But thanks to the staggering script provided by Nottage and the chemistry of DeVault's ensemble (which also includes Leonard Ledford, fine as Cynthia's druggy ex-husband Brucie, and Clark Harris as the parole officer whose scenes with Jason and Chris bookend the play), the production is nonetheless compelling and a definite must-see in a theatrical season which already has been filled with excellent offerings in the first quarter of 2019.
Directed with empathy by Daniel DeVault, Humanity Theatre Project's co-founder and artistic director, Sweat packs an emotional wallop and HTP's beautifully cast production features a noteworthy physical production highlighted by Jim DeVault's exquisitely rendered set that utilizes the intimate confines of Darkhorse Theater to maximum effect - and which is, quite frankly, one of the finest we've seen at Darkhorse over the past several decades. Because of the physical trappings of the production, the vantage point from which the audience watches the action play out onstage seems radically different from earlier shows at the Darkhorse, which adds significantly to the play's visceral impact.
Kurt Grabenstein's sound design provides an effective conduit to the time travel involved in order that you feel a part of the events of a particular time and place. Likewise, Christen Heilman's costumes help to set the tone of the lower middle-class milieu so artfully captured in Nottage's illuminating script.
Sweat. By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Daniel DeVault. Presented by Humanity Theatre Project at Darkhorse Theatre, Nashville. Through March 16. For further rdetails, go to www.humanitytheatreproject.com. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the production Some two years after its presence in the theater community was made know during One Night of Empathy, which brought together 14 separate theater companies, Nashville-based Humanity Theatre Project debuts its first full production March 8-16 with Lynn Nottage's Sweat at Darkhorse Theater.
Ang Madaline-Johnson and Chandra Walton are featured in the roles of Tracey and Cynthia, respectively. Other cast members include Gabe Atchley, Preston Crowder, Diego Gomez, Clark Harris, Leonard Ledford, Jenny Norris and Scott Stewart.
Performances of Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, are at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, and Thursday-Saturday, March 14-16, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, March 10. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.humanitytheatreproject.com.