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Review: SWEAT at Profile Theatre

Review: SWEAT at Profile Theatre

The phrase "Make America Great Again" doesn't appear in SWEAT, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play now in its Portland premiere at Profile Theatre, but the nostalgia that this phrase suggests is the play's driving force. Dubbed by The New Yorker as "the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era," SWEAT illustrates the complex emotions underlying the polarizing words.

SWEAT is set in the Rust Belt city of Reading, PA, in 2000 and 2008, a time characterized by factories shutting down or relocating, taking the well-paying jobs with them. Along with those jobs went a sense of meaning and identity, and as these positive emotions are replaced by anger and anguish, people start looking for someone to blame.

At the center of the play are two women -- Cynthia and Tracey -- who have been friends, through thick and thin, for more than 25 years. They've worked on the same factory floor since they were teenagers, always celebrate their birthdays together, and have sons the same age who are also friends. That solid-seeming friendship starts to fray when Cynthia gets promoted to supervisor and rumors about job cuts start to fly.

What Nottage does so brilliantly is explore the nuanced interplay of emotions that lead people to do terrible things. It has become too easy to define people by a single label when the truth is often much more complex. SWEAT puts economic uncertainty, xenophobia, racism, classism, drug and alcohol abuse, and more all into one big pot and gives it a stir. The result is both educational and devastating.

Profile's production, which I saw in previews, has a strong cast led by the phenomenal Cycerli Ash and starring many local favorites. The two actors that best capture all of the human messiness are Victor Mack and Linda Hayden. Mack plays Brucie, Cynthia's ex-husband who has been out of work for nearly two years and is struggling with drug addiction. There is a moment when his son Chris (La'Tevin Alexander) is reminiscing about when he was young and had idolized his father for being a union leader. The pain in Brucie's eyes as he listens to this story is palpable -- in this one expression, Mack encapsulates the grief of anyone who's ever fallen down in life. Hayden is a master at balancing strength and fragility. She's tough as nails, but seems to age 20 years over the course of the play, and, in one scene about the fate of a certain $5, her performance epitomizes human desperation.

SWEAT is a must-see for anyone seeking greater understanding about the current social and political landscape of our country. On a related note, check out this recent New York Times article that discusses how some of these very issues are playing out in our own backyard of Yamhill, OR.

SWEAT runs through February 2. More details and tickets here.

Photo credit: David Kinder

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