Cleveland Play House has the tendency to arrange their season of shows in a timely fashion.
It was no coincidence that CPH staged “All the Way,” the story of President Lindon B. Johnson, right before the 2016 presidential election. The same goes for “The Woman in Black,” the chilling ghost story that opened in September this year and ran into October, just in time to get audiences in the mood for Halloween.
As it opens before a much-anticipated mid-term election, “Sweat,” the volatile, agenda-pushing play, is no exception.
And the timeliness of “Sweat” certainly adds to its effectiveness. CPH’s well-realized production is an emotional and thought-provoking piece.
Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2017, the same year it opened on Broadway. Largely taking place in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2000, the show explores the effects of deindustrialization on a town that thrived on just that — industry.
Tracey (Nancy Lemenager) has worked in a factory all her life, just as her father did before her, and her son, Jason (Jack Berenholtz) does now. Likewise, Cynthia (Nehassaiu deGannes) and her son Chris (Brooks Brantly) are employed at this same factory.
Most of the action plays out in a bar that is beautifully designed and lit by Robert Mark Morgan and Alan C. Edwards, respectively. With a jukebox playing softly behind them — (courtesy of sound designer Jane Shaw — the workers laugh with barman Stan (Robert Ellis) or glare at his part-time worker, Oscar (Xavier Cano), as they drink away their woes. And some — like the always-intoxicated Jessie (Chris Seibert) or Cynthia’s dead-beat husband Brucie (Jimmie Woody) — indulge too much.
But after the ambitious Cynthia becomes part of management after receiving a well-sought-after promotion, tensions rise between workplace friends. This friction only intensifies when the factory’s upper-management locks out its workers, outsources jobs and consequently ruins livelihoods.
Nottage interviewed citizens of Reading to inspire “Sweat,” and consequently, the show’s characters are authentic. Of course, this is also due to Laura Kepley’s direction and the cast’s very fine acting.
Each character is dynamic and well-developed, ensuring that what could have been a tiresome 150-minute show is instead a highly entertaining production. The actors give this show their all, ensuring that the message behind the show does not go unheard.
“Sweat” is a political hot button, asking the question, who is the bad guy? Is it the management? Cynthia, who crossed the line and left her friends behind? Or the friends who do not support or understand the risks Cynthia is taking? Maybe Tracy, who thinks Cynthia only received a promotion because she is black? How about Oscar, the Hispanic worker who finds temporary employment with the factory when everyone else was locked out?
The answer to this question may seem obvious, but what “Sweat” does so well is give the audience a look into each character’s individual and passionate viewpoint. The show paints an interesting portrait of blue-collar working America, exploring themes of race, humanity and individual ambition.
You may think “Sweat” is out of date — it did take place 18 years ago. However, so many of these characters are still fair representations of America today, despite their bigotry and intolerance.
Whether you agree with the characters in “Sweat” or not, the show certainly leaves you unsatisfied with the state of our country. And so, with a small poll taking place in the Outcalt Theatre’s lobby asking for opinions on “right to work” coupled with “Sweat’s” staging right before the election, it’s hard not to feel as if CPH is trying to tell us something…
Maybe that something is to go vote.
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre,1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $97, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com
Photo caption: From left to right: Chris Seibert (Jessie), Xavier Cano (Oscar), Robert Ellis (Stan), Brooks Brantley (Chris) and Jack Berenholtz (Jason). Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni