The stage is dark and empty. A black backdrop rests behind two silver chairs, and overhead is a small source of light. Evan (Ronald L. Conner) stands above Chris (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), interrogating him. We are in a Parole Office, and Chris details the challenges he has faced since getting out of jail only a short time prior. As he starts to think back to the past, emotions escalate, and he says:
“I dunno. A couple minutes, and your whole life changes, that’s it. It’s gone. Every day I think about what if I hadn’t… You know… I run it, and run it, a tape over and over again. What if. What if. What if. All night. In my head. I can’t turn it off…”
It’s 2008 in the Parole Office, and at the end of Chris’ speech we spiral back in time to January 2000. The audience is about to find out what happened on that day that Chris so regretfully remembers, as well as every piece of tension that built to that gut-wrenching yet unavoidable moment.
Goodman Theatre presents Chicago Premiere of Sweat
Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Ron OJ Parson, Sweat takes place in a factory town in Pennsylvania. We begin with a group of friends gathering to celebrate Tracey’s (Kirsten Fitzgerald) birthday at the local bar. Jessie (Chaon Cross) is trashed, but Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), Tracey’s best friend, is still alert and celebrating along with Stan (Keith Krupferer, with spot-on comedic timing), the bar owner. We learn that Cynthia, Jessie and Tracey all work on the floor at the factory, and a supervisor position just opened up. When Cynthia earns the promotion, tensions rise– especially once the layoffs begin. As the play goes on friendships are tested, and everything the town understood to be the natural order of things is suddenly up in the air.
Nottage’s writing is naturalistic and powerful – cleverly utilizing a dark comedy that allows a light release from the heavy material. At the heart of the play is a town that is deeply entrenched in tradition. Jobs at the factory are handed down from generation to generation, and rarely does anyone break from the mold. When things start to change, no one quite knows how to react, and Nottage creates a heartbreaking window into how that path can go horribly wrong.
Striking Design and Creative Storytelling
The majority of the story takes place in and around Stan’s bar, and Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet creates a highly detailed set that consumes the stage. Nottage’s play explores the static nature of the town, and Parson and his team bring that to life through a bar that rarely changes its appearance despite the shifts taking place outside its walls. Sound Designer Richard Woodbury cleverly adds to the atmosphere through reminders of political elections in the midst of transitions. The play takes place between 2000 and 2008 – the beginning of which was the year of the George W. Bush and Al Gore election. The audience receives segments from actual news reports and debates from the time, immediately planting us in the moment. Whether the characters like it or not, change is happening, and Parson’s design team brings that element of Nottage’s play to life.
While we rarely see obvious physical changes to the bar, Parson does include clever subtle clues – particularly through the role of Oscar (Steve Casillas). Nottage explores racial tensions in this town in addition to class, and while Oscar was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania just like everyone else, yet he is seemingly an outsider as a Colombian-American and one who does not have a history working in the factory. Oscar works for Stan in the bar, and throughout the play, we see him cleaning up after the others. Whether or not others notice him, he is always busy doing the grunge work –picking up glasses, unpacking beers, or carrying boxes up and down the tall staircase at the back of the stage to an unseen attic. While Oscar may go unnoticed by the others, he is always present, and Casillas carries that balance as a silent but perspective observer with a powerful stage presence, always absorbing information. As changes settle into the town, Oscar becomes more of an active participant, and whether or not the others are ready, he is going to embrace this opportunity.
Painful Moments of Tension
Nottage’s piece is full of conflict within things both said and unsaid. Parson creates a pacing for the play that allows that pressure to fully settle into the audience. Some scenes, at least for this writer, are so tense that they feel physically uncomfortable.
Part of what allows time to pass noticeably are the gatherings for characters’ birthdays – beginning with that of Tracey at the top of the story. As relations change between characters with power shifts at the factory, these parties start to change – especially for Cynthia’s birthday when her promotion grants her an entirely new status. Parson fills the scene with pregnant pauses, allowing time for Tracey and Cynthia in particular to take the other in, thinking through all of their history as best friends, and absorbing the hurt that the other feels because of these shifts. This writer does not want to give away all of the details, but Abercrumbie and Fitzgerald make the heartbreak of their relationship very real. As these two actors stare each other down at Cynthia’s birthday party, you might feel yourself lean in, just wishing one of them would break the silence with a hint of hope for their relationship.
Gut-wrenching writing and a power-house ensemble make Sweat a production that should not be missed. Nottage’s piece may take place over a decade ago, but the story is every bit as relevant today.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Ron OJ Parson... director
Kevin Depinet ... scenic designer
Mara Blumenfeld ...costume designer
Keith Parham ...lighting designer
Richard Woodbury ...sound designer
Running through April 21, 2019
Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with intermission
170 N Dearborn Street
Chicago, IL 60601
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.