Review: “Sweat” — Chance Theater, in Association with Morgan-Wixson Theatre
Updated: Jun 23, 2021
"When Your Job Is Your Life"
Anaheim’s Chance Theater is excited to announce that the Orange County premiere of Lynn Nottage’s scorching and widely acclaimed play, “Sweat,” will be the second show in its 23rd Anniversary Season, and is directed by the award-winning director, producer and casting director, Elina de Santos (“Seminar,” “All My Sons,” “Orphans”).
The show will have scheduled virtual performances from June 20 – July 18, 2021, and is presented in association with The Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica.
“Sweat” is by no means a thinly dramatized op-ed piece. From first moments to last, this compassionate but clear-eyed play throbs with heartfelt life, with characters as complicated as any you’ll encounter from any theater, and with a nifty ticking time bomb of a plot.
Filled with warm humor and tremendous heart, Ms. Nottage’s Pulitzer prize-winning potboiler tells the story of a group of middle to lower middle-class friends who have spent their lives sharing drinks, secrets, and laughs while working together on the factory floor.
But when layoffs and picket lines begin to chip away at their livelihoods and their trust, the friends find themselves pitted against each other in a tragically poignant fight to stay true to themselves and each other. Viewers may find themselves wincing and disquieted as they watch the forces of fate, or to be more specific, the mechanics of 21st-century American capitalism, bearing down on these characters with the brutal power of a jackhammer smashing through concrete.
Motivated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, employers are moving their plant to Mexico. The workers are terrified, not just because they’re going to be out of work, but because their jobs are their lives, a fundamental source of their personal identity. Without jobs, who are they — and what will they become? “This is my first time outta my house in one solid week,” one of them tells a friend. “Do you know what it’s like to get up and have no place to go? I ain’t had the feeling ever. I’m a worker. I have worked since I could count money. That’s me.”
While its trajectory is dark, even devastating, “Sweat” is coevally witty too: Ms. Nottage knows well that the natural reactions to the assaults of life faced by these particular people are a savage sense of humor, and, more damagingly, a swan dive into the comforts of alcohol and drugs.
Originally opening on Broadway at Studio 54 in 2017, Chance Theater’s blazingly well-acted production stars Cary J. Thompson as Brucie, Dalia Vosylius as Tracey, Darrin Hickok as Jason, Elijah Rashad Reed as Chris, Jozben Barrett as Evan, Marlene Galán as Jessie, Rey Pulice as Oscar, Scott Sheldon as Stan, and Estelle as Cynthia. Marc Antonio Pritchett performs voiceovers.
The technical team includes projection designer Nick Santiago, costume designer Adrianna Lambarri, lighting designer Masako Tobaru, sound designer & fight coordinator Marc Antonio Pritchett, specialty makeup artist Bebe Herrera, sound supervisor Ryan Brodkin, video editor James Tran, and stage manager Niko Montelibano.
“Sweat” opens with scenes set in 2008, depicting a parole officer in meetings with two ex-convicts, imprisoned for their involvement in the same crime, who have come through the system with deeply divergent results. Jason (Mr. Hickok), with white-supremacist tattoos etched into his face and neck, reacts with sullen anger to questions about his prospects. His former friend Chris (Mr. Reed), by contrast, has discovered the sustaining solace of religion, and hopes to get his life back on track by taking up the college studies he was forced to abandon.
The script moves fluidly between these passages and scenes from eight years before, where the bulk of the action takes place. In the foreground of these scenes, set in a bar favored by workers at the local metal tubing plant, are three middle-aged women, fast friends who together have put in more than 60 years working machines in the factory.
Jessie (Ms. Galán), somewhat inebriated at a table in the corner, isn’t exactly doing her part to celebrate the birthday of Tracey (Ms. Vosylius), who we eventually learn is Jason’s mother. The breakup of Jessie’s marriage has driven her to imbibe more than usual, although Tracey doesn’t feel too sympathetic, having weathered her own failed marriage.
Cynthia (Estelle), the mother of Chris, has more pressing man trouble. She had unwisely let her ex-husband, Brucie (Mr. Thompson), move back in for a few days around the Christmas holidays, only to wake up on the morning itself and find half the presents under the tree gone — as well as her fish tank. Brucie, whose union has been locked out of the city’s other plant for two months after the union balked at draconian pay cuts, has been hitting something harder than the bottle.
Presiding over Tracey’s informal birthday party is Stan (Mr. Sheldon), the bartender, though not the owner of the bar. He, too, worked in the factory, as did his father and grandfather, until an accident caused by a faulty machine almost cost him a leg. He’s an avuncular type who keeps the peace when necessary, with the help of his Dominican bar-back, Oscar (Mr. Pulice).
Mediation becomes increasingly necessary when Cynthia applies for and, to everyone’s surprise, wins a promotion to management, causing a painful rift with Tracey, who had also applied and resents being supervised by a former equal. She attributes Cynthia’s selection to tokenism. More trouble comes when the rumors of layoffs begin swirling, and Cynthia finds herself caught between her duties as a manager and her sympathy with her friends in the union.
With its large cast of precisely drawn characters — most of whom, when not riled by fear about their dimming futures, are great company — the fire-eating “Sweat” brims with a kind of ripe, richly imagined life. Ms. Nottage’s colloquial dialogue doesn’t approach or even attempt lyricism, but Jessie delivers a beautiful monologue about the life she might have led had she not, when still a teenager, started working in a factory.
Ms. Nottage’s sympathies clearly lie with the workers facing virtual if not literal extinction, but the politics are embedded so deeply in the drama that we never feel the playwright is distorting the play’s direction to score sociopolitical points. The issues this drama raises — painfully timely ones — surface organically from the circumstances, and complex matters of race, class and culture are handled with impeccable deftness.
Respectively, this kind of writing that cuts this close to the bone draws out the best in actors. The ensemble is exemplary, so uniformly excellent that I cannot point to a single performance as rising above the rest. To laud them individually would require another review.
Let it be enough to say that each actor locates the rich humanity in his or her character, and transmits it to the audience with deceptive ease. When the play reaches its climax, we feel so swept up in the fracturing lives of the people onstage that the distance between that world and the real one it reflects with such searing precision has all but collapsed.
Tickets for the Chance Theater OC Premiere of “Sweat” are $20-$39 and can be purchased at https://chancetheater.com/
Performance times are June 20 - July 18, 2021, Fri/Sat 7:00 p.m. PDT; Sun 2:00 p.m. PDT. Please note, this show contains adult language and subject material. Running time: 2 hrs., 30 minutes with intermission. Highly Recommended!
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photos courtesy of Chance Theater