Review: SWEAT Heats Up to a Fury at Omaha Community Playhouse

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Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, SWEAT, on stage at the Omaha Community Playhouse through September 15 will shake you up. It will have you laughing your head off until it sneaks up behind you and clobbers you with a baseball bat. It's that kind of hard hitting script and, when enacted by some of the best, most real actors in Omaha, it's an explosive experience. If you crave something substantial that will linger in your mind for quite some time...this is for you.

SWEAT opened Off Broadway in 2016 and on Broadway a year later to critical reviews that touted this play as the reasoning behind the outcome of the last presidential election. Nottage spent four years interviewing the people of Reading, Pennsylvania who had gone through a collapsing local economy and been labeled the nation's number one poorest city. Although the play is set in Pennsylvania, it reflects any small town where major businesses shift to foreign countries or find cheaper labor, forcing people into abject poverty and desperation. Unions are powerless. Employees are locked out with no resources.

SWEAT flashes back and forth between the years 2000 and 2008. It opens with a meeting between a parole officer, Evan (George Weaver) and a young ex-convict with white supremacist tattoos, Jason (Josh Peyton). The scene switches to Evan with another ex-con, Chris (Brandon Williams). We don't quite grasp what has happened to land these two former friends in prison, but more clues are revealed as the story progresses.

The story unfolds in the local bar managed by Stan (Thomas Becker) and aided by his Latino barback, Oscar (Emmanuel Onate). Stan lost his job at Olstead Metal Tubing after nearly thirty years when he was injured working with the machinery. He bitterly fumes that not one Olstead showed up when he was hurt. He was "nobody to them." Oscar also knows what it is to be invisible. At one point in the story he asks in surprise, "You know my name?" While they wrestle with invisibility, Chris longs for surprise in his mundane world. He asks Stan every time he enters the bar what beer he has on tap. Surprises can come from unlikely sources.

Three of Stan's regulars are factory coworkers and best friends, Cynthia (Kathy Tyree), Tracey (Laura Leininger-Campbell) and Jessie (Jennifer Gilg). The women have been gathering at the bar for years to wind down after a long day at Olstead's, and as an annual celebration of their birthdays. They have a history here. Their fathers and grandfathers have a history in the town and at the plant. And now their sons, Jason and Chris, have followed in their work boots. These women work together, they play together, and they support each other. When Cynthia's ex-husband, Brucie (L. James Wright) shows up, they are quick to stand beside her.

A management position opens at Olstead and Cynthia, who is black, has decided to take a chance on applying. Tracey, a white woman who has had no ambition to advance beyond floor work as long as the paycheck keeps coming, decides to go after the same position. Distrust is fraying the fabric of their friendship and Jessie chooses sides.

Change is coming. Nerves are on edge. The union is doing little to stop the owners from shifting the work to Mexico. Strikers are taking their jobs at half the wages. So who do you blame for the loss of income? Anyone who isn't the same color. Anyone who hasn't lived here for generations. Anyone who isn't like you. Brucie (L. James Wright) tells the others that white guys blamed him as a black employee for the loss of their jobs years back even though he was standing on the same line they were.

The preponderance of this play is verbal. The conversation is counterbalanced by one intense fight scene choreographed by Kevin Barratt. It is as real as you can get, which makes it so painful. Only an exceptional cast could carry the audience through it all. Intuitive director Susie Baer Collins built that exceptional cast and fine-tuned them to perfection. These actors are skilled in transformation. They switch from the bawdy humor of the bar crowd, to anxiety-ridden working class people struggling to survive, to a ferociously angry mob.

Along with these nine incredible actors, TV fragments from the past lend authenticity and create mood. Jim Othuse's bar is accurate down to the last bottle on the shelves. Tim Vallier's beautiful compositions accentuate without grabbing the spotlight. Everything is finessed to the finest detail.

I don't have the words to describe SWEAT. I can't explain how good it is. You have to see it for yourself. You might end up feeling like you've just had open heart surgery.

There is much room for discussion once you've recovered from the performance. You can make this about politics. You can make this about racism. You can say it's about immigration. You can throw in catch phrases like "especially important in today's climate." But what I saw were flawed human beings, the same today as yesterday, who are drowning in a cauldron of feelings: Love. Anger. Fear. Bitterness. Hopelessness. I saw human beings who needed to justify their inability to control their lives--human beings who take the side that feels the most comfortable. And sometimes, just sometimes, human beings who find the ability to forgive.

Make this as deep or as simple as you wish. SWEAT is dynamite on all levels.

Running AUG 16-SEP 15, 2019

Photo Credit: Colin Conces


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