Southwest Theatre Productions' Sweat

This production brings home the plight of the American blue-collar worker with sympathy

Stan McDowell as Brucie (left) and Steve Wright as Stan (Photo by Aleksander Ortynski)

The American blue-collar worker has not had it easy in recent years. Industrial jobs have continued to bleed away, leaving families and communities adrift. Working-class people are to be either pitied or castigated or maybe both, having played a crucial role in deciding the 2016 election.

Lynn Nottage, a playwright of remarkable sensitivity and perception, has entered this intellectual fray with her play Sweat, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Nottage has a knack for showing characters on a gradual decline, bringing the audience into their world to understand how they could make the choices they do. It's both painful and illuminating.

Southwest Theatre Productions' presentation of Sweat features a group of workers at a steel mill in Reading, Pa. They're regulars at a bar tended by former steelworker Stan (Steve Wright). At first, the crowd knows things are rough, but they trust their union, and they trust the plant to which they've given their working lives, as did their fathers before them. Then management locks them out, moves out the machinery, and brings in lower-paid temp workers while they begin to transition jobs abroad. Gone are the pensions, the benefits, and the decent salaries that supported a whole community. Gone, also, is the self-respect of the men and women who centered their lives around the work of the mill.

Two families that have been close for years – one black, one white – rupture. The emotional story of the characters connects the story, focusing on Cynthia (Nikki Redlin) and Tracey (Suzanne Balling, in an especially strong performance), two mothers whose grown sons also work at the mill. A bit before the workers are locked out, Cynthia pulls off the near-impossible and moves from the floor to a management-level position, putting her in the hot seat with her friends and family as the situation grows more dire. The collapse of the women's decades-old friendship represents a lot of what'shappened in this country in recent years.

Under the direction of Kat Sparks, the cast members have clearly done a big share of the actor's work. They've explored their characters and traced their journeys, and they're reaching for the truth of the play. They make the story sympathetic and engaging when it might have been agonizing.

It's also true that for some in the cast, there is work yet to be done on the fundamentals of stagecraft. One person speaks too quickly, another too softly; another has pitched his work for the camera rather than the stage; another struggles with diction. They are not bad actors, but for some there is room left to grow on simple technique. Then, either the lighting design (Ryan Salinas) was problematic or the cues were off on opening night, not quite giving the cast what they needed in Elisa Stancil's well-designed set.

The Santa Cruz Theater is a tricky place to stage a show; the black box has a low ceiling and is oddly shaped. Hopefully, as the run progresses, the cast will settle into their parts and match their work to the space. It's a remarkable script, and a production with the potential to be great.


Santa Cruz Theater, 1807 E. Seventh
Through Feb. 3
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.

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Southwest Theatre Productions, Lynn Nottage, Kat Sparks, Suzanne Balling, Steve Wright, Nikki Redlin, Ryan Salinas, Elisa Stancil

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