BWW Review: Nashville Audiences Get Second SWEAT in Two Months, Thanks to STC Production
Lynn Nottage's Sweat - her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the impact of economics, immigration laws and differing political views and, in turn, their effect on interpersonal relationships - is given its second mounting in two months in Nashville theater, with the Alicia Haymer-directed production from Street Theatre Company. Now running through May 25, Sweat offers a searing indictment of the political climate in which we live and interprets in some personal detail just how we've managed to come to this very point in our nation's history.
It's powerfully written, cutting to the very core of that which separates us as human beings, delving deep to uncover the unacknowledged prejudice and bias that perpetuates an "us v. them" mentality we struggle with daily to overcome if we are to move past the ultra-partisan politics of the first quarter of the 21st century. Truly reflective of the serious issues that led to the so-called Trump Era, Sweat examines how we ever got to that place to begin with - and it casts a contemplative eye on the world, national and local events that have transpired to galvanize voters so resolutely on either side of the political divide.
Nottage's beautifully written script pulls no punches, nor does it sugar-coat anything. Instead, it forces us - all of us, actually - to take an unflinching look at ourselves and how we now find ourselves in this particularly confounding and contentious time and place. Through her works, Nottage compels her audiences to view themselves (as if in front of mirror), for only through self-reflection can we be forced to acquiesce to our involvement, our very complicitness, in the indifference we feel toward others who don't look like us. Sweat is provocative and challenging theater and any production of Nottage's play, regardless of its production values or the performances found therein, is worthy of your consideration.
Street Theatre Company's version of Sweat features some impressive performances, to be certain -
Kay Ayers, Nina Webster, Mike Sallee, Elliot Robinson, Alex White and Barry Kennedy Jr., in particular, give strong readings of their multi-hued, multi-ethnic characters - but this production seems somehow underbaked, as if the rehearsal process were rushed and attention to detail allowed to be diverted that leaves the entire presentation lacking. Add to that the fact that the night stretched on for three hours (despite a program note that tabbed it at two hours of running time) since the show started almost 25 minutes late and an interminable intermission ran long past its allotted 15 minutes.
Ayers, back onstage at Street after an eight-year absence, delivers a wonderfully nuanced and totally believable performance as the angry Tracey, while Webster (playing Cynthia) gives as good as she gets as the two friends do battle with one another, barely simmering rage informing their interactions. Sallee is terrific as Cynthia's ambitious son Chris and he is paired with White, as Tracey's son Jason, as friends whose lifelong connection is shattered during one especially horrifying moment. Robinson brings his theatrical gravitas to the stage to play Brucie (the ex-husband of Cynthia and the father of Chris), while Kennedy gives a strong performance as the boys' parole officer in scenes that bookend the play.
Randy Craft's set design provides the scenic backdrop for Nottage's incisive drama - a neighborhood tavern in Reading, Pennsylvania between 2000 and 2008, it's also framed by the presidential elections of that span of years - and its evocative of the type of places where working class men and women gather for a few drinks, to blow off steam and to share the minutiae of their shared lives in a town dominated by a single, large employer seeking to trim costs to the detriment of the people who are dependent on their paychecks. Christen Heilman dresses her cast in costumes reflective not just of the times, but which serve as indicators of their social standing which infuse the politics of Nottage's script. The lighting design, by Austin Olive, not only illuminates the stage, but also helps the audience to focus in on what's happening among the assorted characters in the piece.
Where the production falls short, however, is in its details - some big, some small. For example, the fight choreography that occurs during the play's most dramatic moment comes off as amateurish and phony, lacking any sense of authenticity that's essential to ensuring that dramatic moment hits home with the biggest possible emotional impact. And when a character orders a double vodka on the rocks, it would figure she'd be handed a drink that looks like that; instead, brown liquid is poured from a Maker's Mark bottle and served neat, a moment in which every audience member is taken out of the scene while they shake their heads and cluck their tongues with bemused condescension.
Sweat. By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Alicia Haymer. Presented by Street Theatre Company, 1120 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville. Through May 25. For more information, call (615) 554-7414 or go to www.streettheatrecompany.org. Running time: 3 hours (with one intermission).