THEATRE REVIEW OF LYNN NOTTAGE’S PLAY
Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is a powerful play that examines the tragic lives of factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania as their employer shuts down the plant. She puts a magnifying glass on the fate of the line workers in a masterful play that won the Pulitzer Prize. Canadian Stage and Studio 180 have tackled it and have achieved an outstanding production.
The play takes place in a bar in a depressed town of Pennsylvania where the friends meet. They are Tracey (Kelli Fox) and her son Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman), Cynthia (Ordena Stephens–Thompson) and her son Chris (Christopher Allen), as well as Jessie (Allegra Fulton), a dedicated heavy drinker who never misses work. They meet at the bar that is managed by Stan (Ron Lea) who worked at the same plant for many years until he was injured on the job. Oscar (Jhonattan Ardila), a Latino, works at the bar.
They are friends and have built their community and traditions in the town and in the bar. They have dreams and plans. A vacation, a car, a better job. Tracey and Jason are white. Cynthia and Chris are black. Cynthia’s husband Brucie (Peter N. Bailey) is a pathetic drug addict who was thrown out of his job when his union was locked out. Cynthia subsequently threw him out.
The only outsider in the play is Evan (Maurice Dean Wint) a no-nonsense parole officer.
David Storch directs a fine cast through the good times and the economic and social deterioration of the group. The plant may be closing and Cynthia has been promoted. Her friend Tracey who said she did not want the job is jealous and becomes abrasive. The relationship between Jason and Chris sours. Chris wants to go to college. Oscar, the quiet busboy, crosses the picket line and goes to work in the plant.
With the plant closures the social fabric of the entire community gets frayed. It is a frightful picture. As may be expected horrible violence breaks out leading to much worse results than the loss of work. I will not disclose the end.
Kelli Fox is excellent as Tracey, a worker whose only job had been at that plant. She is tough, assertive, angry and boisterous who in the end is left with almost nothing. She must begin from the bottom.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Cynthia takes a promotion but is accused by her friends of treachery – you did not stand up for us. It is painful to watch her trying to defend herself against the indefensible when she has no control of the situation. A superb performance.
Chris and Jason start out as friends but everything is shattered between them when the economic conditions deteriorate and they lose their jobs. Their characters are perhaps the most affected by conditions in their town and their lives are almost destroyed. Timothy Dowler-Coltman and Christopher Allen as Jason and Chris personify the hopes and utter destruction of the two young people.
The wretched druggy Brucie and the drunkard Jessie may represent the final stage of the deterioration of the people of the town and Bailey and Fulton are terrific in their roles.
The set by designer Ken Mackenzie represents a bar and with a couple of exceptions it is where the entire action of the play takes place. But the back of the stage is covered with a number of screens which are used for projecting images and videos. They show politicians and other personalities as well as giving us news about what is happening in the world outside of the town. The play takes place between 2000 and 2008. The videos are no doubt intended to give context to the play but they were frequently fuzzy, the speakers were not always recognizable and on many occasions they were a source of confusion rather than information.
The acoustics of the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre make it sound like an echo chamber and at times that did not help with hearing everything that was being said.
Nottage’s play is a powerful image of the effects on ordinary people of uncontrolled capitalism. The tragedy is national and personal and the current production brings it all in focus for an outstanding night at the theatre.
Sweat by Lynn Nottage in a Canadian Stage and Studio 180 production continues until February 2, 2020 at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com 416 368 3110