Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Simmering Tension: Pulitzer-Winning 'Sweat' Finds Sly Power in Its Pertinence -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Lynn Nottage
directed by Ron OJ Parson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 14

There are numerous reasons for the loss of jobs, and the decimation of entire employment sectors:

Automation, societal change, corporate greed, shareholder returns, Wall Street shenanigans, shifting realities, changing priorities, foreign competition, personal shortcomings and more can all be contributing factors.

None of these make for easy targets on which to focus one's anger, so all too often we blame and/or assail co-workers, supervisors, family, friends, minorities, immigrants and more readily identifiable scapegoats.

This is one of the points I believe playwright Lynn Nottage--the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, including one for this play--to be making, artfully, slyly and eventually, in Sweat.

It's a powerful work, all the more so because the 2-1/2 hour two-act is in no hurry to fully reveal itself.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Based in the hardscrabble town of Reading, PA, Sweat--now on the mainstage at Chicago's Goodman
Theatre under the direction of Ron OJ Parson--largely takes place within a bar near a steel mill in the year 2000.

But creating something of a mystery that lasts until the final scenes, it begins in 2008, as a parole officer (Ronald L. Connor) speaks separately to Jason (Mike Cherry) and Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), both recently released from prison and somehow connected.

I'll only partially address their connection by sharing that each is, respectively, the son of longtime plant workers and friends Tracey (Kirsten Fitzgerald) and Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who along with Jesse (Chaon Cross) regularly visit the tavern where Stan (Keith Kupferer) tends bar.

He had also worked in the mill for decades before a leg injury forced him to quit.

It seems safe to assume that audiences who watch Sweat having taken a glance at the show program or marketing materials are initially more aware of the steel mill's impending fate than the characters who work there, but anyone who's been through a downsizing or closure should be able to relate to the emotions Nottage conjures.

The relationship among the three female co-workers becomes complicated when at least two of them vie for a promotion into a management role, which only one gets.

This puts her in the untenable position of having to share with her pals information they don't want to hear--or worse, keep it from them.

This aspect of Sweat reminded me of Dominique Morisseau's play, Skeleton Crew, which I saw last year at Northlight Theatre.

Economic downturn and its repercussions--on companies, factories, workers, friends,  communities, etc.--is fertile dramatic ground, and it is no knock on Nottage that similarities came to mind.

And while I found Sweat's first act intriguing but not phenomenal, it's to the credit of Nottage, Parson, cast and crew that the work's power and pertinence snuck up on me by the end--without simmer ever obviously turned up to boil.

The show's structure, of scenes in the Reading bar in 2000, divided up among various characters--somewhat also reminding me of the non-war parts of The Deer Hunter--intermixed with a few scenes occurring in 2008 served to pique my interest in the characters, and wonder why Nottage made the time-bouncing choices she did.

But two Pulitzer Prizes--and other plays of hers I've seen--obviously bespeak Nottage being a gifted playwright, and I suspected there was more at play than initially obvious at face value.

The writer began work on Sweat in 2011 and it premiered in 2015 before hitting Broadway in 2017, but--even without being overtly political--it's easy to see it as a piece even more reflective of Donald Trump's America than the slightly earlier times of its setting.

It doesn't provide ready answers, for there often aren't any, and leaves it to the audience to judge certain characters without clearly taking sides.

That's why I mean it as quite a compliment to dub Sweat as deceptively terrific.

It makes its points--at least as I perceived them--sharply, but slyly, not overtly.

So while all of the actors--including Steve Casillas as Oscar, an employee of the bar, and Andre Teamer as Cynthia's ex-husband Brucie--do clearly stellar work, Sweat is a play that ultimately achieves greatness through inspiration, more than perspiration. 

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