Review: SWEAT

by Lynn on January 19, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lynn Nottage

Directed by David Storch

Set by Ken Mackenzie

Costumes by Anna Treusch

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Music and sound by Samuel Scott

Projections by Cameron Davis

Fight director, Casey Hudecki

Cast: Christopher Allen

Jhonattan Ardila

Peter N. Bailey

Timothy Dowler-Coltman

Kelli Fox

Allegra Fulton

Ron Lea

Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Maurice Dean Wint

A frightening and timely play that illuminates the harsh reality of factory work that pits friend against friend and colleague against colleague. Beautifully directed and acted.

The Story.  Sweat is written by American writer Lynn Nottage. It takes place in New Jersey. It’s about three friends: Tracey, Cynthia and Jessie and others who work in a factory  and who frequent Stan`s bar after their shifts. An admin job opportunity opens up and Cynthia decides to go for it and move up the ladder. Then Tracey also applies. Tracey has two more years experience. Cynthia gets the job and Tracey is furious. Because Cynthia is African-American Sweat is not only a play about the financial upheaval in America it’s also about the divide between races; how the desperation for the job can pit one person against the other; how much one sacrifices for a job and what will she fight for.

The Production. The first scene takes place in 2008 in a probation office. Evan (Maurice Dean Wint, calm, cool and commanding) the probation officer is reading the riot act to Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman) who has just gotten out of jail. Jason is almost quivering with rage, clenched fists and contorted face. He also has swastika tattoos on his face that makes him look more forbidding. Timothy Dowler-Coltman as Jason is relentless in his fury, perhaps almost too relentless, but put in context, just out of jail, jobless, angry, this makes sense.

Evan also talks separately to Chris (Christopher Allen), who is also out of jail. He and Jason were involved in a crime that put them both there. As Chris, Christopher Allen, is calmer, anxious and has given himself over to religion. He is consumed with the jail experience but strives to do better. Jason just seems overwhelmed by it and rage is all that is left.

Most of the play takes place in Stan’s bar in 2000. The dates are projected above the bar.  Ken Mackenzie has designed a long, well-stocked bar with stools at the bar and round tables around the space. When the scenes change from 2008 back to 2000 where the story begins, various video segments of what has happened that year in America are flashed on the panels at the back of the set.

Tracey, as played by Kelli Fox, is loud, boisterous, a drinker of ‘doubles’ and sensitive to any slight. She is Jason’s mother. Cynthia, as played by Ordena Stephens-Thompson, is calmer than the extroverted Tracey. Cynthia is Chris’ mother.

While Tracey has two years more experience in the factory on the line than Cynthia, it’s Cynthia who gets the promotion. One can see why when they learn the plant is shipping their jobs to Mexico because of cheaper labour. Cynthia is calmer, more diplomatic and goes to the wall for her friends. Tracey, as Kelli Fox plays her, is more hot-headed, volatile and that gets in the way of leadership. It’s a performance in which I can see how that hot-headeness can be passed on to her raging son. Similarly, as Cynthia is trying to hold on so is her son Chris.

When matters break down between Tracey and Cynthia it’s hinted that Cynthia got the job because she is black. Ordena Stephens-Thompson (as Cynthia) laments that idea and says to Tracey something like, “Don’s make it be about this” as she quickly strokes her arm, meaning don’t let it be about skin colour. It is a gesture that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Cynthia wonders if in fact she got the manager’s job to be a scapegoat. It’s a fascinating question among others.

Allegra Fulton plays Jessie, the third friend in this group. Jessie is always so drunk she is almost passed out.  In one scene Allegra Fulton raised her head from the table and sat straight, the head bobbing slightly, a slight smile on her face, totally unfocused eyes, fuzzy-minded drunk. Stunning.

Oscar (a confident Jhonattan Ardila) is Stan’s helper in the bar. Oscar is from Colombia and is looked at with contempt by some of the customers. He works hard, cleaning tables, sweeping the floor etc. I thought director David Storch could have him working more, taking the initiative, drying, polishing, shining, unobtrusive. In one scene he just sat behind the bar—this was an opportunity to set up more of Oscar’s work ethic for what happens later in the production. This is a quibble. David Storch establishes the angst and uncertainty of these factory workers regarding their jobs. They are losing it emotionally when a strike looms. There is fighting among the friends and others. There is a fight—one of the best I’ve ever seen in this instance so bravo Casey Hudecki, the fight director—and that lands Chris and Jason in jail.

This is a production of a play that encapsulates the economic upheaval in the States and here as well.  David Storch carefully establishes the ramped up emotion of the piece.

Comment. Lynn Nottage writes eloquently about friendships torn apart by economic hardships, racism, angry frustration and despair. It’s about people slogging for a living while up against a brutal economic system that doesn’t value people as much as making money at their expense. But she also writes of people who work hard, slowly get ahead and look out for those less fortunate. A play about a hopeless situation that ends in hope.

Produced by Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Theatre

Opened: Jan. 16, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 2, 2020.

Running Time: 150 minutes.


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