SALT LAKE CITY — Pioneer Theatre has put together a marvelous production of Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, a play that digs deep into the human experience. I went not knowing what to expect, and I left feeling distraught and pained for our humanity. My emotions seemed to reflect those shown in the play.
The story follows three friends who have grown up in the same town of Reading, PA. Each of their birthdays is celebrated at the local bar throughout the show. The play shows how the large corporation that keeps the town alive and gives them jobs is able to take it all away without regard to their needs. The aftermath that people experience from losing their livelihood plays out in some heartrending scenes.
Mary Robinson directed this show and has directed at many regional theaters in the past. Her skill was evident, because I was instantly pulled into the daily lives of these people despite the slow beginning. It was fun to see moments of dancing and partying from the girls celebrating Tracey’s birthday, as well as the more quiet, comfortable talks between bartender and drinker.
The sets were detailed and specific enough to help me see the time period near the beginning of the 21st century. The bar had a lot of nostalgia, including a, “sorry, we’re closed,” sign that said, “sorry, we’re drinking,” instead. The only thing that seemed a bit off was the fact that the bar seemed to be doing well even though there were only a few customers. Though there aren’t more characters in the play, I wonder how it would have worked if Robinson had added some extras.
The acting was superb, and seeing as every actor was part of Actor’s Equity, their expertise was to be expected. I was impressed with the changes made by Margot White as Tracey, going from fun-loving to an extremely bitter and desperate drug addict. It was so sad to see the effect the job losses had on each person, especially the character Jason, played by Callum Adams. His change was so stark from the beginning of the timeline to the end that I didn’t realize he was the same actor until much later in the show, because the show had started at the end of the timeline and then flashed back.
Christopher Duval played Stan the Bartender, and also did the fight choreography, which was probably good because he was in the fight. I was impressed with his build up to anger in the scene when the boys were getting upset about the layoffs. The fights were smooth, and I wasn’t worried for the actors because they took enough time to be safe and still make it look realistic. Their expressions helped with the realism of the scene, and the end of the fight scene was so startling that I suddenly started bawling. I’m glad I didn’t bring a friend to this one.
Nottage is a genius when it comes to writing, and I was grateful for the issues she brought up. One was shared through the character Brucie, played by Vince McGill, to his son Chris, played by Hassiem Muhammad. Brucie shares how though he has stood his ground in the face of injustice with the large corporation, he still lost, and he encourages his boy to get out of that situation before it’s too late. I’ve met so many people who have very valid excuses for not reaching their potential, and I’ve met others who get there anyway despite all their hardships. I would want to be the latter, and that desire is Nottage’s point: that people can choose which path to take.
Though this show is a well written, directed, and performed, it is definitely for a mature audience. I was glad to see it, but it deeply and emotionally affected me. Sweat is an important show for our time period, and it seems to be one of those shows that could spark change for the better.