If you go into a performance of Sweat, the two-act drama by Lynn Nottage on now at the Goodman Theatre, without knowing much at all about the plot or setting, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it takes place in the present day. It could all be taking place nearly two decades into the new millennium, when factory jobs are scarce and dwindling, when the divide between have and have-nots is as wide as ever and when the idea of “them vs. us” is wielded as a political tool by populist politicians.
In fact, the show about friends, coworkers and families pushed to the brink by economic and societal pressures and their eventual collapse under the weight of it all finds us at the turn of the millennium. Some scenes transpire in the months before another contentious presidential election; others fast forward to the financial crisis of 2008, the sense of desperation and despair almost palpable.
Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed by Ron OJ Parson, isn’t exactly a “fun” night at the theater, but it is an incredible one. At one point towards the end of the second act, after a particularly impressive moment by Tyla Abercrumbie as Cynthia, a line worker at the local factory recently promoted to management, I actually uttered an audible, “Wow.” Such is the moving nature of a production that, though set in what today feel like “days gone by,” feels as timely and as essential as ever.
Parson and casting director Adam Belcoure have assembled an all-star ensemble to surround Abercrumbie, including Chicago stage mainstay Keith Kupferer (who also had a small role in last year’s film, Widows) as bartender (and former factory worker) Stan; Kirsten Fitzgerald, recently seen at Victory Gardens in Lettie, as Tracey, on the factory line since high school, and Cynthia’s best friend for nearly 30 years; and Chaon Cross, fresh from her knock-out starring role in Court Theater’s Photograph 51 as Jessie, third in the trio of friends and finding her coping skills at the bottom of a bottle. Oscar (Steve Casillas) is a busboy at the bar; Brucie (André Teamer) is Cynthia’s estranged husband and father to their grown son, Chris (Edgar Sanchez). His best friend is Tracey’s boy, Jason (Mike Cherry).
It’s the boys we first meet, evidently during their meetings with a parole officer (Ronald L. Conner, another familiar face previously at the Goodman in Ivo van Hove’s staging of A View from the Bridge). Clearly, something has gone very wrong in their lives, and each is dealing with it in very distinct ways. Following their meeting and just a few glimpses into what brought them to this moment, the scrim rises to reveal a dive bar one might find on any corner in Pilsen, Albany Park or Bridgeport; sports paraphernalia on the brick walls, neon signs shouting about “Miller Time,” bar stools that one imagines have seen a thing or two, and a cast of regulars who make the place a home away from home. (The set is designed by Kevin Depinet.) In fact, we’re in Reading, Pennsylvania, once known as one of the poorest cities in America and where, at least in Nottage’s version of things, the working class populace can’t keep up with the changing economy and have no backup plan to speak of.
The first act of Sweat can feel a bit slow, with more questions than answers as we get our bearings in time and get to know the characters. What we come to learn as the show progresses, of course, is that the only thing slow about that first act is the burn, as Nottage deftly introduces the themes, plot points and character quirks that will all pay off by the time things boil over after intermission. And boil they do, so fiercely and yet with such fragility that one doesn’t know whether to scream or weep. The stakes in Sweat couldn’t be higher, with not only people’s livelihoods on the line, but their lives as well. Abercrumbie and Fitzgerald shine as longtime friends who know exactly how to get through to the other––and exactly the right buttons to push to do so. Cross holds her own throughout, and when she finally gets her moment in the second act, we’re reminded what a talent she is.
Casillas’ role is pivotal and powerful; both Sanchez and Cherry carry their essentially dual roles (then and now) with impressive adaptability. But it’s Kupferer who’s the true star of the show, embodying Stan as a straight-talking realist who’s playing the cards he’s been dealt as best he can, after an accident at the factory forced him out. On stage nearly the entire show as his patrons come and go, he’s quietly confident and consistent in his presence in any scene.
Sweat has been extended through April 21 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, and though it’s still early in a promising year for local theater, this one will easily be one of the best productions you’ll see in 2019. More information and tickets are available online here.
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