Review: ‘SWEAT’ at Arena Stage

Permit me this before my actual review of Lynn Nottage’s bold, brave play SWEAT which is receiving a splendidly searing, raw, and real production at Arena (Co-commissioned with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

L to R: Kimberly Scott (Cynthia), Kevin Kenerly (Brucie), Tara Mallen (Jessie), and Johanna Day (Tracey). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
L to R: Kimberly Scott (Cynthia), Kevin Kenerly (Brucie), Tara Mallen (Jessie), and Johanna Day (Tracey). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The characters on the stage weren’t strangers to me from the other side of some deep chasm and divide of economic class. I knew some of the blue-collar, union people that Pulitzer Prize winner Nottage gives us in the down-on-its-fortunes Reading, PA setting of SWEAT. No, not the exact same folk, but similar. The folk in SWEAT were similar to those in my small blue-collar NJ home town. I went to school with them. I grew up in a time and not far from Freehold, NJ; the town Bruce Springsteen made better-known and wrote about in his anthem to early 1960’s lost union mill jobs “My Hometown.”

SWEAT is an incisively written, adroitly performed, heroically sharp examination into the lives of ordinary and diverse union workers who lose their jobs, lose their identities and then lose their way into alcohol and violence during the period 2002 to 2008. Coming out of the mouths of the various characters who honestly believe each in their own way that “it wasn’t supposed to happen,” SWEAT provides any number of not so unreasonable causal factors for diminished lives, including the new people moving into Reading, the inability of its protagonists to envision the future and take some steps to try to deal with it such as moving from Reading or taking opportunities to learn new skills.

One very major culprit cited for lost good-paying union jobs was NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) that was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Though I note that who pushed for and signed the NAFTA legislation is not mentioned by name, that I recall.

As brought to life by playwright Nottage’s respectful vision, what could have been a complex muddle of one-dimensional characters voicing progressive political talking points, are much more complex. An audience doesn’t have agree with the characters, but they can’t be or shouldn’t be dismissed with the wave of a hand. And, worry not that this is only a picture of depression without any air.  There is plenty of ribald humor to leaven this dive in realism à la Clifford Odet’s work with the Depression era’s Federal Theatre Project.

Under Director Kate Whoriskey’s affectionate touch, caring decency, and attention to the realness of the characters, SWEAT’s ensemble each receive high praise for their performances. The cast sympathetically inhabit their characters. They show us people being ensnarled in pain, disbelief, and anger that ends with rage and an horrific vivid violence (credited to U. Jonathan Toppo as fight director).

The exceptional cast includes Johanna Day (striking as factory-worker and mom Tracey who possesses extraordinary “fight” in the rendition of her lost character), Stephen Michael Spencer (as a heated, outraged Jason, a factory worker and son of Tracey), Kimberly Scott (as Cynthia who “oozes” her own internal conflicts while in the throes of the animosity of her co-workers over a promotion), Jack Willis (bartender Stan as the peace-maker caught in the middle of events struggling with the disparate personalities of his bar patrons who pays a high price for trying to keep order in his bar), Tramell Tillman (as Chris, a young man with a college goal and son of Cynthia, who goes quite array in a momentary of loss of self-control), and Reza Salazar (as the unshowy Oscar who tries to make things right with the others even as most treat him as either invisible or with distant).  Tara Mallen (Jessie) each add depth to their characters Kevin Kenerly (Brucie) and Tyrone Wilson (Evan) add plenty of depth to the characters they play

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design presents the interior of a wood paneled bar and grill, with all the expected detritus of a local real life after work hangout. With the use of a well-oiled turn-table, the audiences is provided views of the bar’s back area and also the gray cinderblock world representing a parole officer’s work place as well as the less as the sad places of people at bottom call home. He has previously designed more than 100 Broadway shows, and  is the recipient of multiple Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards, and is a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame.

L to R: Stephen Michael Spencer (Jason) and Tramell Tillman (Chris). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
L to R: Stephen Michael Spencer (Jason) and Tramell Tillman (Chris). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Jennifer Moeller’s costume design gives a visual style of those who “work on the floor” – as they describe their factory work – and then find a way to be more comfortable stopping at a bar to discard the crap of their work day.  Original music and sound design from Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen add the right ambiance to the production.

SWEAT is a play to be seen and celebrated. The ending brought a complete hush to the audience the night I took in the show.  The ending brought as well a hush on the stage as characters took in what violence can do.

Lynn Nottage has written about people perhaps not many in DC run into on a daily basis. The play’s current relevance, with its themes of the loss of well-paying jobs that have benefits and pensions, and union jobs leading first to resilience in the face of adversity, then to people taking on the worse elements of themselves, which leads to calamity and disaster  – are so fitting for these days of heightened economic stress for those without a college degree. And then there is the sooner-than-they-might-expect Federal Workers who are attached to good paying jobs working in the bureaucracy, or Congressional staffers, and others who may face a loss of their free-lance jobs come next November. SWEAT suggest the 1% folk will always have their portfolios to fall back on.

Sweat is a powerful production that must be seen.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

SWEAT plays through January 3, 2016 on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

Note:  SWEAT was first performed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival from July 29- October 31, 2015. A number of those cast members are reprising their roles in in the Arena Stage production.

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