By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
After eight years in prison, two ex-convicts return to their hometown of Reading, PA, and face the consequences of their actions while trying to pick up the pieces of their former lives in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Sweat.”
Two childhood friends, Jason (Patrick Cannon) and Chris (Ananias J. Dixon) have followed completely different paths in prison. Jason has covered himself in Nazi images, including a Swastika tattoo that blankets half his face, from his forehead to his chin. Chris found Jesus in lock up and carries a small, leather bible everywhere. Both men meet with their parole officer, Evan (Monteze Freeland) and discuss life outside the penitentiary.
Chris and Jason’s lives diverged, but they share a common past. “Sweat” flashes backward to let their mutual past unspool, slowly, methodically.
Eight years earlier. Three women, Cynthia (Tracey Conyer Lee), Tracey (Amy Landis) and Jessie (Michelle Duffy), hang out at local bar after finishing their shifts at Olstead Steel Tubing, a steel mill. The ladies get together to gripe about the job, even though it’s the best paying gig in town. Between beers, Cynthia spends time arguing with her ex, Brucie (Kevin Mambo).
The bartender Stan (Tony Bingham) relentlessly flirts with Tracey, but she doesn’t take the bait. Jessie gets too drunk, and the bar back, Oscar (Jerreme Rodriguez), polishes the tables quietly in the background. It seems like a series of regular nights in small town America – until the plant begins laying off its employees.
Meanwhile, Cynthia gets a management position, right before the lay-offs begin, and racial tensions balloon like subprime mortgages.
Hint: Racism, sadly, has never really gone away. It just festered underneath everything like cancer, destroying everything in its path.
“Sweat” examines the 2016 election through a tiny microcosm in an American bar – a tempest in a shot glass. The play is a treatise on how the USA began falling apart when corporations busted unions and moved jobs to Mexico.
Why did Jason and Chris go to jail? Sorry. The captain has raised the spoiler shield. The gory details will not be revealed in this review.
Nottage wrote a whip-smart script, but the plot is a slow burn with a fiery climax and a coal black ending. Each character gets a storyline, but the play never feels crowded or disjointed. It is, however, very confusing. Patient audience members will be rewarded.
Director Justin Emeka has an excellent cast sweating on stage. While the ensemble is terrific, there are several stand outs.
Landis is brilliant. Her character, Tracey, is a maniac. Seriously. She’s a Steeltown girl on a Saturday night looking for the fight of her life. And, boy, does she gets one!
Cannon is explosive as Jason. When he first wanders into the bar in the flashback, he’s infused with boyish charm. But as his circumstances change, he becomes more and more bitter and jaded. He smolders in his ex-convict scenes.
Conyer Lee is magnificent. She gets a lion’s share of the story as Cynthia goes from working class woman to management and elsewhere.
Bingham is amazing. He transforms himself in the final scene of the play (spoiler shields are still engaged).
Dixon is walking around with some kind of young Forest Whitaker energy, and, that, my friends, if a very good thing.
All the action takes place on an exquisite swiveling set by Michael Schweikardt. There’s very effective lighting and sound design by Sherrice Mojgani and Zach Moore respectively.
Milquetoast warning: “Sweat” is not for the faint of heart. It is violent and laced with profanity. If you have to cover your eyes for the squeamish scenes or cover your ears for the dirty words, it’s worth it.
P.S. Don’t be fooled by the play’s title. The theater is actually quite chilly. Bring an extra sweater.
“Sweat” runs until December 9 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.
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