Review: A Riveting SWEAT at Pioneer Theatre Company

By: Apr. 04, 2019
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Review: A Riveting SWEAT at Pioneer Theatre Company

Pioneer Theater Company stages a riveting SWEAT. The production is more than worthy of the drama's credentials as a 2017 Best Play Tony nominee and winner of the year's Pulitzer Prize.

With insightful direction by Mary B. Robinson, each actor in the largely ensemble cast finds the humanity in Playwright Lynn Nottage's well-drawn characters. While white-collar theatergoers may be unaccustomed to the plight of the blue-collar workers' emotional (and certainly financial) reliance on a Rust Belt town's single largest employer, we immediately feel a kinship with their struggle through the precise portrayals.

SWEAT is devastating to watch. The audience experiences the lives of these characters in bitter turmoil. But with the blink of an eye at the play's conclusion (mild spoiler alert), it becomes a richly rewarding experience, deeply impactful and yet another affirmation of why we love live theater. It is truly lovely.

Nottage, who also won a Pulitzer for "Ruined" (making her the first and to date only woman to receive the honor twice), introduces us to SWEAT's two primary characters -- Tracey (Margot White), a three-generation worker at a rural steel bearings plant; and Cynthia (Nafeesa Monroe), the first family member to be employed there. They sweat it out together on the factory floor, living paycheck-to-paycheck. Tracey and Cynthia are initially bonded as friends, often gathering at the local watering hole with friends and one son of each to unwind and swap stories and jokes. Then it is slowly revealed how they are each impacted when the factory owner decides to shut down portions of the plant and ship many jobs outside the country.

Add to the wreckage that Tracey is white and Cynthia is black, with Cynthia earning a promotion that Tracey feels cheated out off. Not only are lives disrupted, but ethnic and racial hatreds are stoked in the aftermath. The relationship disclosures are made at various key moments in the play, revealing Nottage not only knows her soon-to-be-unemployed workers, living among them, or credit the extensive research she conducts with each of her works.

White and Monroe, as Tracey and Cynthia, respectively, giving towering performance and comfortably reveal their characters' journey. They each remember their long-standing friendship, but Tracey has become a rival of the embittered Cynthia; and Cynthia just wants to keep peace between them: a challenging task considering the turmoil of the union negotiations and the hard-line tactics of the plant management.

The long-standing friendship between Tracey and Cynthia's sons, Jason (Callum Adams) and Chris (Hassiem Muhammad), unravels, we learn in the first scene, as they are individually interviewed by their parole officer. Adams and Muhammad are exceptionally fine. A University of Utah professor, Christopher DuVal is laid-back as the barkeep, and shows his skills as fight choreographer in a bar brawl where he becomes the center of the feud, a plot point that central to the play.

There is great lived-in authenticity of the creations by Jason Simms as scenic designer and K.L. Alberts as costume designer.

In press coverage of SWEAT, writers make a point that the characters couldn't afford a ticket to see a production. But to both the white- and blue-collar masses Nottage wants to send a message: We need to help and offer support to each other, without relying on corporations.