Review: Sweat by Lynn Nottage Makes Plays Great Again

Sweat the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lynn Nottage opened at the Donmar Warehouse this November, based on the residents of small-town Reading, Pennsylvania,  one of America’s poorest cities . It is the type of town where three generations of a family can work at the same place, believing that their loyalty and hard labour will be rewarded, and the union will not under any circumstances fail them after all that “sweat”. (main image: Clare Perkins and Wil Johnson)

Directed by Lynnete Linton “Sweat” begins in 2008, with the release of Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson) both still young men in their twenties and who had been convicted for the same crime, with Sule Rimi’s Evan being the parole office trying to get them back into a society that has little to offer them. There is a tense moment between Jason and Evan. Jason has turned to the far right his face and neck decorated with white-supremacist tattoos. African-American Chris has gone down another route discovering religion and wants to go back to school and become a teacher.

SWEAT
Clare Perkins’s Cynthia and Martha Plimpton’s Tracey Sweat at The Donmar Warehouse, 2018, Credit: Johan Persson

The action then goes back to 2000, before Jason’s tattoos, we see the 2000 US election on the TV in Stans Bar. Chris’s mother Clare Perkins’s Cynthia and Jason’s mother Martha Plimpton’s Tracey and Leanne Best’s Jessie are the workers at the local steel mill, who take pride in their orange overalls and hold their head up high getting drank each evening at Stan’s Bar sharing about the past and present, their relationships and lives. Stuart McQuarrie’s Stan the barman has his own stories of the factory as most of his family had worked there he also talks of “Nam”. Most of the action takes place in Stans Bar, fleeting back and forth between 2000 and 2008.

SWEAT
L-R-  Best, Plimpton and Perkins The Donmar Warehouse, 2018, Credit: Johan Persson

Cynthia’s husband Brucie, rode the picket line, he was part of a union but 3 years down the road he is without a job. Accomplished Wil Johnson’s Brucie is a man who has lost his identity, soul and pride, he is one of the earlier casualties in the play, his marriage to Cynthia and his relationship with his son  gone. His vices drink and drugs do not drown out the pain, in his laughter and tom foolery we see tears, Johnson’s Brucie is broken and they are heart wrenching scenes when he asks son Chris for 10 dollars and when Chris loses contact with him for months not knowing his fate.

Nottage manages to inject some humour into this bleak and dire portrayal that marks the end of America industrialization, when Cynthia allows Brucie to stay she wakes to find both the Christmas presents and her fish tank gone. To encounter him and ask “where are my fish” takes the sharp edge off but only for a minute.

Cynthia does not hide the “devotion or now “delusion” that she had for the union “…when I got my union card, you couldn’t tell me anything.”  she says as she faces her own tribulations.  Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie have worked at the mill for more than 20 years, but change is coming as the mill has big ideas on how to reduce the workforce and their overheads. Perkins, Plimpton and Best make a brilliant trio as Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie the ballsy women central to Nottage’s play. Firm friends, it is not long before resentment crawls to the surface and racial tension rears its ugly head as a blame culture sets in.

SWEAT
Stuart McQuarrie as Stan, Martha Plimpton as Tracey, The Donmar Warehouse, 2018, Credit: Johan Persson

Cynthia a black women gets promoted above Tracey coinciding with the mill’s plans to make changes, Tracey and  Jessie both begin to question if Cynthia getting the job was tokenism. As Cynthia has joined the management and the women learn jobs are on the line tensions mounts between Tracey and Cynthia. Jessie represents the once all-American girl who for a moment comes alive when she is told by Jason that she “must have been hot”. Her life of regret is blacked out by her nightly visits to Stans Bar.  The play leads back to the moment when Jason and Chris committed the crime eight years earlier and by this time both Tracey and Jessie are out of work.

A very real harrowing depiction of working-class America and capitalism. Can this be why so many Americans rallied behind Trump’s “make America great again”. Lynnette Linton did a seamless job, presenting a well-oiled machine from casting to Frankie Bradshaw’s set. The bar is extremely high.

Cast: Leanne Best as Jessie, Clare Perkins as Cynthia, Patrick Gibson (The White Princess) as Jason, Osy Ikhile (Torn) as Chris, Wil Johnson (Leave Taking) as Brucie, Stuart McQuarrie (The God of Hell) as Stan, Martha Plimpton as Tracey, Sule Rimi (Measure for Measure) as Evan and Sebastian Viveros (Our Girl) as Oscar. On our list of top shows to see this holiday season!!

On at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th January book tickets here.

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