Where: The Citadel – Shoctor Theatre
When: January 12 to February 3, 2019
Tickets: Prices Vary – Lowest $35.00
Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Director: Valerie Planche
Cast: Marci T. House, Nicole St. Martin, Lora Brovold, Ashley Wright, Andrew Creightney, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez, and Anthony Santiago
If there’s one show that best reflects the United States in 2019, it’s definitely Sweat. While written in 2015, the play’s central issues — labour rights, working-class anxiety, and the migrant crisis — almost seem to foreshadow the current rise of right-wing American nationalism. But while Sweat effectively identifies the issue, the play doesn’t offer any answers, and this current production at The Citadel isn’t without a few problems.
Set in the small, working-class town of Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat follows a small cast of factory workers and friends, jumping between the years 2000 and 2008. The show opens with Chris (Andrew Creightney) and Jason (Chris W. Cook) in 2008 as they return home after being incarcerated. The show then quickly jumps back in time to 2000 to show the events around the local factory that led to their imprisonment. The play ultimately builds to a pivotal scene where tensions flare, and the lives of everyone involved are changed forever.
However, while tense and dramatic, Sweat’s script is not without some problems. The dialogue sometimes feels stilted, although this may be due to some actors’ delivery. Regardless, in several moments throughout the play, tension between characters is heightened but not resolved in a meaningful way. For example, in the opening scene, Jason has an angry outburst towards his probation officer (Anthony Santiago) and calls him the n-word. However, the officer doesn’t say anything, and the two return to their previous conversation as if nothing had happened. Moments like this one often left me feeling dissatisfied as an audience member.
But my dissatisfaction with Sweat stems from more than some bad dialogue or a few missed opportunities for heightened drama; my dissatisfaction is with Sweat’s message or, rather, the lack of one. While Sweat effectively shows the current pressures faced by the rural working class, the play doesn’t offer an answer to the problem. Sweat seems to suggest that the issues its characters face are so insurmountable, so systemic, that there is no opportunity for change or even hope. The play ultimately ends anticlimactically, with little resolution and many points of tension left unresolved. In a show as political as Sweat, the lack of a coherent message feels like a missed opportunity.
Besides the script, this production on its own also has several problems. First and foremost, pacing is often an issue, especially in the first act. Despite quick, concise dialogue, some scenes drag on unnecessarily. As well, the performances from Anthony Santiago (Evan/Brucie) and Lora Brovold (Jessie) are uninspired and unrealistic. Finally, what little stage fighting there is in this play is unconvincing. The punches always clearly miss their target and the actors make no attempt to perform “naps” (noises that emulate the sounds of punches or kicks) that would have better sold the intensity of the fight for the audience.
That said, this production has its strengths. It features standout performances from Cook, Marci T. House (Cynthia), and Nicole St. Martin (Tracey); all three are realistic and engaging, bringing energy to every scene they’re in. The set design is also effective and interesting. The set perfectly imitates the inside of a dive bar, complete with neon signs and even a working beer tap. Sections of the set rotate, allowing the actors to transport the audience away from the bar and into other settings. All of these details make the set feel authentic.
While not a perfect play by any means, Sweat is still thought-provoking and generally engaging. While it lacks a strong central message, Sweat still effectively depicts the struggles of the modern American working class. The show casts a light on those left behind by a changing economy and culture, and for that, it’s worth seeing. If you want to better understand the United States in 2019, you should see Sweat.