The Justice Theater Project’s regional premiere of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Sweat, offers a harsh examination of the economic realities of America’s working-class that is more than just thought-provoking: it should evoke enough fear for the future that it prompts action.
Based on over two years of research Nottage conducted in Reading, Pennsylvania, the play deconstructs the image of the working class and explores the underpinnings of class and race divisiveness. It is a gritty, tumultuous account of these hardworking individuals and the factors that shape them.
Sharply directed by Jerry Sipp, this incredibly talented nine-person ensemble offers passionate and moving performances that never condescend or belittle the characters they portray. Their motivations, fear, anger, and despair, are given a complete portrayal that pushes for understanding rather than sympathy.
The bulk of the action takes place in scenic designer Jeffrey Nugent’s masterfully crafted realistic local bar. Complete with neon beer signs and a glowing jukebox, this atmosphere is familiar, where patrons gather to drink, celebrate, and escape. The time period is 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, with a few scenes set in 2008, the last year of George W. Bush’s term in office. Dates are projected above the stage to eliminate any confusion.
The opening moments establish the tragic trajectory of the story with a parole officer separately interviewing two young men recently released from prison. Even when the story shifts back to the bar eight years earlier, the initial warning signs that this industrial town is about to implode and take its residents along with it are already established.
Mattew Hager (Jason) and Brandonn Odom (Chris) shine from their first moments on stage as the new parolees. As usual, Hager displays an innate ability to exude his character’s emotions with his body. Odom brings a full range of passion to his poignant portrayal of Chris, a man whose dreams were crushed when he committed a crime with his friend, Jason.
When the two women at the heart of the story, Tracey (Andrea Amthor Twiss) and Cynthia (J. Ra’Chel Fowler), the mothers of Jason and Chris respectively, stagger into the bar with their other drinking buddy, Jessie (Kelly Caniglia), the camaraderie among the women is visibly apparent. Twiss and Fowler each bring a heightened intensity to their roles as well as project the right amount of underlying vulnerability that fuels their emotions. Caniglia has some great moments and also offers up a touching performance.
Gerald Louis Campbell delivers a sobering and moving portrayal of Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, who has turned to drugs from the strain of being locked out of work for a long period. Veteran actor John Honeycutt offers the crusty understanding of a bartender who is familiar with his clientele since he too worked at the factory until he became disabled. Efrain Valencia Santillan gives a solid performance as the bar’s janitor, Oscar, watching the patrons from the sidelines. The multi-talented Juan Isler pulls double duty, first as the practical, no-nonsense parole officer, Evan, and as JTP’s resident sound designer. His selection of familiar anthems signals scene changes and enhances the action on stage.
When friendships fray as news of other plant lockouts and the hiring of non-union workers poison the atmosphere, it is like watching a train hurtling toward a crash. No one seems to be able to apply the brakes. Where worker solidarity once tamped down potential racial tensions, job competition starts to conjure feelings of resentment, and friends are now marked as targets of misplaced anger toward affirmative action and immigration.
Nottage has each of her characters offer up their stories on how their hopes and dreams were derailed; their diminished circumstances symptomatic of a rapidly changing world. Instead of banding together, anger and fear find scapegoats or solace in alcohol and drugs. They want to escape but don’t have the means to do so. Unfortunately, it is an all too familiar tale plaguing many communities in this country.
That Nottage gives these people a voice in Sweat is commendable. At times, they strike an almost Shakespearean air as they deliver moving monologues chronicling the history of their families, their work, and their community. It is the human interest story behind the headlines that resonates and is a telling sign of the times nearly a decade after the play takes place.