BWW Review: SWEAT, Donmar Warehouse
A society is in ruins, and in this tale of depression, dependency and deluge, the human experience is voyeuristically examined, to reveal what happens when you leave folks behind. Focusing in on one singular place, the play shows how the odds can be unfairly stacked against people.
Spanning three generations, Lynn Nottage's narrative of the working struggle is an outstanding achievement. Originally premiering in 2015, amidst the Trump election campaign, the play taps into why he may have gotten so many votes. Nottage's story highlights how decisions made high up can detrimentally affect those who are at the bottom.
The main setting is a downtown bar, Mike's Tavern, which plays host to the locals who come to chat, argue, debate and fight. It's located in Reading, Pennsylvania - a once-distinguished manufacturing area. Nottage spent two years interviewing the residents in the town, to investigate their lived experience and find out what really happened.
The extensive research shows in Nottage's writing; it is impeccably detailed and each character has a delicious richness to them. We see three women, all mates, who regularly get leathered to relieve the stresses of the day. Each of them has worked at the power plant for over 25 years, but when one of them is promoted to a senior position, we see their friendship collapse drastically.
Cynthia, played superbly by Clare Perkins, has upgraded from the factory line to a supervisor position, something that her best mate Tracy (Martha Plimpton, also brilliant), struggles to handle. She believes that her friend has traded in her ethics for an air-conditioned office, whilst also making the case that she only got the job because she is a minority.
Tensions between them rise, and the conflict is amplified when Cynthia has to lock out her friends as the building makes cuts, in favour of immigrants that are willing to work for free. Their friendship gets to the point where recovery is impossible and the resulting action is agonising to watch.
There isn't a minute that goes by where you aren't enthralled. Lynette Linton's direction is superb and draws out fantastic performances from each company member. Her production is pitched perfectly in tone, and effortlessly flits between humour, heartbreak and trauma. It's gorgeous storytelling.
It isn't a surprise that Nottage won her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat. This really is an extraordinary play. It's one of the last to open this year, but there is no doubt that it is one of the best to grace the stage in 2018.
Photo credit: Johan Persson