Entertainment » Theatre

Huntington's 'Sweat' Grabs You and Doesn't Let Go

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Feb 10, 2020
Marianna Bassham, Tyla Abercrumbie, and Jennifer Regan in "Sweat," at the Huntington through March 1. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Marianna Bassham, Tyla Abercrumbie, and Jennifer Regan in "Sweat," at the Huntington through March 1. Photo: T. Charles Erickson  

The Huntington's production of "Sweat" kicked up more feelings of dread and anxiety within me than any other show in recent memory. Rather selfishly, it wasn't for what the characters were going through (although that was a part of it), but for how the events of the narrative could play out in my own life. In Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer prize-winning play, everything falls apart and at breakneck speed. Consider that the play's main narrative opens with a celebration, the characters laughing and dancing, seeing nothing but good times ahead. In less than a year, feelings of disappointment, frustration, helplessness and rage will end in an explosion, featuring one of the most terrifying depictions of stage violence that I've ever seen. Sitting in the stunned silence post-detonation, a quiet little voice pops up in the back of your head to remind you, "ten months ago, these people were happy." Yeesh... what a world.

That's the kind of production that the Huntington is offering up, directed by Kimberly Senior. It reaches out to you and grabs ahold of your guts. Once it gets its hooks in you, it only squeezes tighter and tighter. The walls seem to be pressing in on you with no way out. You can't shake free. Then, just as it's becoming unbearable, the play delivers the sucker punch that leaves you on the floor. I'm still a little hesitant on some aspects of the play and production, but there's no arguing with its high-impact effect. Playwright Lynn Nottage is working within the grand American tradition of socially conscious dramas, (one that stretches back to Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller), but she manages to put her own spin on it, bringing the form screaming into the present day. There's a lot to unpack in this tale of what happened in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Tommy Rivera-Vega, Guy Van Swearingen, and Jennifer Regan in "Sweat," at the Huntington through March 1. Photo: T. Charles Erickson  

The most important location in "Sweat" is one that we'll never actually visit: Olstead, the factory where most of our characters work. Reading is an industrial town, with Olstead being the key employer for the area. It's early in the year 2000, during that waning months of the Clinton administration as the country is preparing to elect Bush, the younger. Here, we'll cross paths with Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), Tracey (Jennifer Regan) and Jessie (Marianna Bassham) who work at Olstead on the factory floor and for whom Olstead employment is family tradition. Jason (Shane Kenyon) and Chris (Brandon G. Green), Cynthia and Tracey's sons also work there, as did Tracey's father and grandfather. So much of the town's identity is wrapped up in the factory because, as the characters keep noting, the employment it provides is the best in the area. Good wages and benefits, backed by the unions, make a certain kind of middle-class existence possible for the community and allows them to plan for the future.

But change is fast approaching. Trade agreements like NAFTA have made it more cost-effective for management to close up shop and move to Mexico where they can take advantage of cheap labor. Olstead seems poised to do the same. When a strike is called to try and management refuses to budge, the workers feel the pinch of trying to get by without a paycheck. Frequent patrons of the Huntington might notice similarities with Dominique Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew," produced by the company two years ago. Morisseau's play told the story of workers in an auto factory faced with a potential shutdown, but had a more wistful tone, focusing more on the bonds that can develop between work families. The characters in "Sweat" won't be going gentle into the night in quite that way. They're faced with a terrifyingly uncertain future, dwindling options and all they can feel is rage and frustration at the prospect of being tossed aside and forgotten in a changing economy.

There's a lot I liked about the Huntington's production of "Sweat," though it took a while for it to really get going. Before I can dive into why, a bit of context might be necessary because (fair or not) I think Boston audiences are going into the play with a very particular type of baggage. The 2016 New York production of "Sweat" just might be the ultimate example of right place/right time. As the country was reeling from the presidential election and fumbling for some reasoning as to what happened, here was a play that sought to shine a light on and understand exactly the people who helped put Trump in office: Working class voters in swing states who felt left behind by the system. Nottage didn't set out to write a play about Trump voters — the first production of the play was in 2015 and her research on the topic started back in 2012. Rather, Nottage was just trying to explore what she noticed in American life. But this still ended up being part of the narrative around "Sweat."

And I think that this narrative carries over to the Huntington production (again, fair or not). The first act of the show made me more uncomfortable than I have been in recent memory because, surrounded by an audience of middle to upper class patrons, it felt like everyone around me was treating the play as a zoo exhibit — as if they were thinking "Come! See the Trump voters in their natural habitat!" You hear it in the little "hmmm's" of disapproval escaping from audience member's throats at certain moments. A character waves off NAFTA, saying that it sounds like a laxative. Another notes that he won't be voting in the election because politicians don't care about people like him. At these moments, the audience seems to be restraining from calling out "you shouldn't do that!," rather than trying to understand why. You could argue that the production can't be held accountable for how audience members enter the theater — I've heard through the grapevine that productions of the play in industrial towns like Reading, PA are absolutely devastating. Oh, to be an audience member there! But I think that how the play is structured invites this kind of response. Much of the first act involves the characters detailing how they see their lives playing out. By having the play end in 2008, there's a giant ticking clock hanging over the play that the audience is aware of, but the characters are not. The great recession is about to hit. Things aren't about to get better; we know they'll get worse. So when characters' talk about their plans for the future, we don't identify with it, we sit back, armed with foresight, waiting for the blow to be delivered.

Alvin Keith, Guy Van Swearingen, Brandon G. Green and Shane Kenyon in "Sweat," at the Huntington through March 1. Photo: T. Charles Erickson  

Thankfully, Act Two arrives and that's where the Huntington's production really begins to sing. Here, Nottage switches gears, having her characters deal with their present situation, rather than discussing their future. Many of the polished performances get a chance to really shine. Tyla Abercrumble has a devastating scene where she describes being stuck between the factory floor that she came from and the management team that she's now a part of. Marianna Bassham has a more subdued moment of quiet desperation when her character describes the road not taken. Over the course of the evening Jennifer Regan's Tracey practically turns feral, slowly giving into the rage snowballing within her. By the time you reach the play's final scene, it's difficult to take your eyes off of her.

But the highlight for me was Kimberly Senior's fantastic direction because you often don't realize just how many plates she's got spinning at any given time. You really feel that she's using the entire stage. During the play's quieter scenes, she keeps her actors moving, creating much of the play's naturalistic feel. She's wonderfully aided by Cameron Anderson's set design which perfectly recreates every dive bar you've ever been to. And a word too, should be said about Junghyn Georgia Lee's costume design, which does a lot of visual storytelling on its own. One look at the characters and what they wear gives us a lot of information about who they are. Then, as the tone of the play swings towards violence, Senior's direction begins to develop new and exciting levels. As the tension builds, your eyes darts from here to there to there to here, trying to take it all in. When the fighting breaks out, fight director Ted Hewlett more than earns his paycheck by delivering a brutal depiction of violence. We're not allowed to step back and say, "it's not real." Our noses get rubbed right in it.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Lynn Nottage's play is the fact that there are no villains in it. Don't get me wrong, there are moments when people behave monstrously and deliver unforgivable acts. But the play is interested in looking for the systems and circumstances that lead to those acts. The first line we hear haunts the rest of the evening: "So, you got a job?" As you leave the theater, you can't shake the feeling that one day someone could be asking you that question. What's going to happen then?

"Sweat" continues through March 1 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, is produced by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Huntington Avenue Theatre January 31-March 1, 2020. For tickets and more information, visit their website.

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