Not only is ACT’s current production of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play SWEAT the best theater production currently running in Seattle, it’s also the best theater production I’ve seen since the theaters reopened in January of this year. It really has everything you’re looking for in an evening of theatrical entertainment: a brilliantly written play with compelling characters, a timely and enthralling plot, realistic yet dramatically written dialogue, and a perfectly cast company of actors.
And, it took a long journey for this excellent show to reach its destination. ACT was producing this play back in March of 2020 and it was days away from opening when Covid-19 struck and shut down…well, everything. But ACT and its artistic director John Langs, who also personally directed this production and the cast and crew were determined to bring this show home and give it the live performances that it deserves.
It all came to fruition last week when Sweat had its long awaited opening night and it got the results they were hoping for…an ecstatic audience in love with this play and its actors.
Lynn Nottage’s Sweat has been wowing audiences since it debuted in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It then went on to further productions back east before its Broadway debut in 2017. The play won Nottage her second Pultizer Prize for Drama (winning her first in 2009 for Ruined) and the play was also up for the Tony Award that year for best play but oddly lost to Oslo (also produced at ACT 3 years ago) which is, in my opinion, not nearly as strong of a play as Sweat, but that’s a different discussion, for “Theater Speech & Debate Class 101”.
Sweat was timely when Nottage first thought of the idea for the play but it’s central themes certainly haven’t dated since she began researching the material in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011. The playwright was interested in looking at the downturn that Reading had taken in the early 2000s as the once prosperous industrial city lost thousands of well paying blue collar jobs as corporations moved factories from union contracted workers in the United States to low paying workers in Mexico and Asia. She interviewed dozens of people in Reading capturing their stories and constructing a play around the lives of blue collar workers coping with the loss of union jobs that their parents and grandparents had fought for over the course of the Labor Movement in the first half of the twentieth century.
The play centers on a blue collar neighborhood bar in Reading where people who have lived and worked together for decades meet up for a beer after work or to celebrate special occassions. From a character stand point, the story really centers on the lives of two women, Cynthia who is black and Tracey who is white, good friends who have worked together for decades, each with a son of the same age who are also best friends with each other. Tracy is a widow but Cynthia has a former husband Brucie who lost his union job (at a different factory) over two years ago who isnn’t coping well with life after losing that job. There’s also a third woman, Jessie, an ex-hippie who never made it out of Reading, and Stan, the friendly bartender who got out of the plant after an injury.
But, things start to change for these friends when both women apply for a management job, a rare opportunity for a floor worker to move into an office job. Cynthia gets the job and not long after, rumors start to spread that the company is planning on cutbacks. Tracey has become convinced that “affirmative action” unfairly got Cynthia the management job and starts blaming her for “not being on our side” as it does become apparent that the company plans on forcing huge concessions from the union. Eventually, labor relations and racial strife begin to tear apart the friendships of many of the characters with Cynthia and Tracy’s sons Chris and Jason taking out their frustrations on barback Oscar, who is Latino, after the factory begins hiring Latin scab workers at much lower wages to take the place of the striking workers.
Told in flashback style, the play opens with a very hostile Jason meeting with his probation officer followed by a similar meeting with Chris meeting with that same officer. We don’t know yet why the two young men are in probation but the play then goes back in time to answer those questions and continues with those time leaps back and forth over the course of the roughly 8 years that the story takes place.
Sweat isn’t always an easy show to watch. It’s heartbreaking to see these character’s lives be upended and their relationships destroyed, not only between friends and co-workers, but between family members. Drug and alcohol abuse are a theme running through Sweat as more than one character struggles with addictions especially as their problems grow worse over time. And, the racial tensions inherent in the play create another level of friction and drama as white characters grow bitter towards black characters and both express anger towards the Latin community for being the “newest” of minorities and willing to work for lower wages/fewer benefits in order to get ahead in the world. And, I wouldn’t be the first critic to note that Sweat, originally conceived over a decade ago and first performed in 2015, eerily portrays events that led to the rise of Donald Trump. Or, the first to remark on the irony of an angry and embittered working class supporting a millionaire capitalist from New York while angry about corporate decisions that led them to losing their jobs in the first place…
There’s also humor and heart in Sweat; Nottage is careful to offer some balance between all the drama and pain with terrific moments of levity. It also helps that this fantastic cast is up to the challenges of portraying these multi-layered and passionate characters. Every role is perfectly cast and they work together seamlessly as a unified company of artists led by the truly exceptional Tracy Michelle Hughes and Anne Allgood as Cynthia and Tracey, respectively. These two actresses have been among the city’s greatest acting assets for many years, and they continue their track record here with emotionally devastating performances.
But, it really is an ensemble show and everyone else is also on point. Sara Waisanen as the drunken co-worker Jessie was mostly used as comedy relief but she also has a beautiful monologue where we learn a lot about her and how she got stuck working at a plant in Reading, PA. It’s just one of many moments in the play where each character gets at least one special moment to reveal hidden parts of themselves.
The older men are great, too, including Shawn Belyea as the pragmatic bartender Stan, the sanest voice in the play who tries to play peacemaker, but ultimately, at a great cost. Reginald André Jackson as Brucie, the estranged husband of Cynthia does a great job portaying his character’s descent into addiction. And, in a rather thankless role as the parole officer, Anthony Leroy Fuller still manages to command in his brief scenes.
And, the trio of younger male actors are also strong. Tre’ Scott as Chris, the son of Cynthia who is trying to break out of the cycle of plant life and wants to go to college continues to demonstrate his excellent talents along with Cap Peterson as the volatile Jason who has one of the toughest arcs to go through in the play. Jason is a character clearly in love with his best friend Chris but the circumstances of the situation they’re in and his own anger management issues force him down a path that tears that relationship apart. Miguel Castellano as Oscar, the bar back, has what seems like a very minimal role at first, but as the play progresses, he emerges as an important character. It’s a subtle but ultimately very powerful performance from this young actor.
John Langs has done a fantastic job of staging this play within the difficult in the round confines of the Allen Theater. The play has great momentum with impeccable performances. It’s also handsomely designed by the design team especially L.B. Morse’s scenic and lighting design.
All in all, Sweat is a superb piece of dramatic literature and the ACT production does the material proud. For any and all fans of dramatic theater, it really is a must see theatrical event and it’s very highly recommended.