A steel mill in Reading, PA begins to shut down. Suddenly lifelong employees set to retire on fat pensions are facing joblessness with no nest egg and no hope. As their very survival is threatened, friends become enemies, latent racist and xenophobic tendencies take over minds, and a mountain of emotional kindling is laid that only needs one small spark to set off a raging conflagration. This is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and it has kicked off the latest season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
There is certainly nothing subtle about Nottage’s script. From the very beginning, it grabs the viewer by the throat and gleefully paintbrushes her or him for the better part of 2 ½ hours. The play is chock full of devastating themes such as betrayal, racism, xenophobia, entitlement, corporate greed, depression, and the danger of having one’s sense of self defined solely by a job. It also skillfully presents a mindset that demonstrates just how our political climate might have reached its current volatile state without making any judgment calls.
From an actor’s perspective, this show is a treasure trove. Every character is unique and well-defined. It is truly an ensemble piece with each character getting a moment in the sun and no true leading role. With a perfectly cast group of magnificent talent, OCP’s season gets an explosive start with a drama for our time.
Susan Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct this powerful piece. Her knowledge of the story is deep and certain which allows her to fully explore every beat and help each performer realize his or her fullest potential and become fully formed and realistic persons. The staging is pretty strong for the most part with the actors making full use of the performance space and constant movement to animate the dialogue. However, the performance space of the Howard Drew is a bit of a mixed blessing as its intimacy is crucial to pulling the audience in, but the way the characters have to interact makes it difficult to play to the entire audience at various points.
In a night of outstanding interpretations, a stellar performance is provided by Emmanuel Oñate who makes an excellent debut as Oscar, a likable young man trying to make his way in the world who draws the ire of locked out steel mill workers due to the double whammy of his crossing the picket line and the perception that he is stealing work from “real” Americans due to his Hispanic heritage. Thomas Becker also shines as Stan, the manager of the local bar who serves as a sounding board to everyone’s issues and also acts as a voice of reason to the burgeoning turmoil bubbling up from the plant’s lockout. L. “James” Wright gives a tragic performance as Brucie whose sense of identity was completely wrapped up in his job. Robbed of his ability to provide, he sinks into a deep abyss of depression and addiction.
Kathy Tyree is a geyser of talent with her rendition of Cynthia. Tyree’s Cynthia is a rock and tough as nails. She is the friend who will have your back no matter what, but also knows when to draw the line as she has to keep her husband, Brucie, at arm’s length while he battles his personal demons and refuses to take any garbage from her friends after winning a promotion to warehouse supervisor that has her perceived as one of “them” due to a combination of jealousy and things going south at the mill. What I liked best about Tyree’s take is that she never made an obvious choice or reaction. She was so extemporaneous, it was almost as if she was writing her own dialogue on the spot as opposed to reciting learned lines.
Laura Leininger-Campbell is a firecracker as Tracey. Tracey strikes me as a person who isn’t easy to friend, but, if you manage to do so, you have a friend for life. She is brusque, mouthy, and has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. She can also be fiercely loyal, but watch out if you cross her as she holds grudges. Leininger-Campbell is incredibly effective as this complex character. She well communicates Tracey’s latent racism that gains strength when she loses a promotion and is further fueled by Oscar’s crossing of the picket line. Leininger-Campbell is particularly mesmerizing in two scenes. One where she is arguing with Cynthia and manages to convey the sense that she loves and hates her simultaneously with her on the dime emotional beat changes. And a second where the show leaps into the future and she is having a conversation with her estranged son, Jason, and seems to age years before your eyes with pure body language that seems to bow her back, make lines appear on her face, and add a few pounds.
Josh Peyton succeeds with his handling of the role of Jason. Arguably, this may be the show’s most difficult character to play due to the two widely different personalities he has depending on when the show is in the past or the present. Peyton gives past Jason a happy go lucky personality. He’s a pretty decent guy who doesn’t give much thought to tomorrow and just likes having fun, though he does exhibit some of the personality traits and thinking of his mother, Tracey. Present Jason is an angry, bitter, potentially violent man whose facial tattoos suggest that he might have been part of a white supremacist group. Peyton not only does good work in playing the two variations of his character, but he also succeeds in showing the transition from one to the other and planting the seed that past Jason’s good qualities may overpower his present’s darkness.
Brandon Williams has a dandy debut as Chris. This is the play’s most positive character as he is a good man in both past and present. Williams has a great likability as Chris who is good to his parents, a hard worker, and has a plan for his life all mapped out. His one weakness is that he might be too loyal to Jason as that loyalty leads him into a truly bad moment in the past. In the present, Chris is an even better man who has found Jesus and now shares that faith to bolster others and gives him the strength to right some past wrongs and to try to have closure with Jason. In the present, Williams exudes a confidence granted by faith and well executes the determination to correct a past error even while he clearly feels guilt and embarrassment over it.
Jim Othuse has designed a nice little local bar that is clean, welcoming, and comfy and is further enhanced by the properties of Darin Kuehler whose bottles of liquor and hanging chips make it feel like a real hangout. Othuse has also well lit the production especially with his use of darkness and light. The past was always bright and got a little darker as things went bad and the present is shrouded in darkness until a literal light of hope at the end. John Gibilisco brings some great sounds especially the creepy effect as present transitions to past and the use of a TV showing news footage of the day when our country slid into the Great Recession. Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are quite realistic with the work overalls, the everyman clothes of the working class, and the somewhat poorer garb of the present version of some of the characters. Timothy Vallier provides a sad and moving score. I did think a fight scene could have used a bit more speed and a crucial moment needs to be cleaner as I wasn’t sure exactly what happened until the final moments of the show.
Sweat is definitely a play for our time. You won’t be able to turn your eyes away from it and it might give you a better idea of how we reached our present state of affairs. And understanding the past is always the first step to making a better tomorrow.
Sweat plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 15. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com. Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not recommended for children. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography