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The Public Theater's Production of "Sweat", by Lynn Nottage, At Studio 54

- Backstage with the Playwrights

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Stuart Thompson, Louise L. Gund
et al. and
The Public Theater

(Sweat Website)

By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Carlo Albán, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day
John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams
Michelle Wilson, Alison Wright

Studio 54
254 West 54th Street

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Makeup & Hair Design: Leah J. Loukas
Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo
Production Stage Manager: Donald Fried
Casting: Heidi Griffiths, CSA, Jordan Thaler, CSA
Technical Supervision: Steve Beers
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Advertising: SPOTCO
General Management:
Thompson Turner Productions, Daniel Hoyos

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 30, 2017

Lynn Nottage’s new play, Sweat, which comes to Studio 54 direct from The Public Theater, is an ensemble piece, exploding with pathos, poignancy, and politics. The stage is set in the year 2000 with a busy Reading, Pennsylvania bar, and the immediate community of characters that frequent the bar have either previously worked at a local steel mill, are still working there, or will be working there, once a union strike kicks in. The sweat-driven workers in this blue collar town are being displaced by the mill’s relocating jobs to Mexico and other south of the border countries, where wage requirements are vastly lower. NAFTA is working its wiles. The mill’s employees, whose positions remain in Reading, are suddenly squeezed on retirement funds, work hours, and respect. Word is out that more locals will be dropped, and Stan’s (James Colby) watering hole subdues the stress. Stan worked for the mill for decades, but was laid off due to a work injury from a broken machine. His loyalty and trust crashed against a wall of betrayal. His bar assistant, Oscar (Carlo Albán), born to Colombian parents, couldn’t get a job at the mill, due to inbred prejudices among the Reading populace. But, that was yesterday, and now it’s today. When Oscar takes a sub-wage offer at the mill, thanks to a Spanish newsletter during a union strike, the bar and its ensemble of regulars fully implode.

Prior to the first bar scene, the play opens in 2008, in a stark building with a parole officer, Evan (Lance Coadie Williams), aggressively coaching and reprimanding two parolees, Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis), who sit tensely on stools in nervous gesture and posture. Evan and Chris had been friends for years, both taking low level jobs at the mill, following in their families’ footsteps. Evan’s mother Tracey (Johanna Day) had also been best friends. within a group of women that always celebrated each other’s birthdays, with Chris’ mother Cynthia (Michelle Wilson). As the play progresses, Cynthia wins the promotion that Tracey sought, and politics weaves its way through the unfolding plot. Another friend in the women’s circle, Jessie (Alison Wright), is the bar’s ethereal hippie, inebriated and loose, but hanging onto her job at the mill. Cynthia’s ex-husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), makes a couple of brief appearances, subtly seducing Cynthia back into submission. By the play’s catastrophic finale, buoyed by U. Jonathan Toppo’s fight direction, the audience understands why Evan and Chris had been incarcerated.

Sweat is a riveting and enthralling play, with powerful, individual performances all around. The play opened just before the 2016 election, and it’s themes’ timeliness and relevance to the election results are stunning. The white working class of the American factory towns, shut out of their longtime jobs, thanks to NAFTA and other trade deals, with factories closing and relocating where labor is cheaper and controllable, or with services outsourced to reduce US labor costs, put its thumb on the electoral college. Ms. Nottage and the play’s Director, Kate Whoriskey, expanded this theme through evenly balancing each character’s internalized angst and externalized anger. Moments were never dull. The two mother-son relationships, as well, spoke to generational differences in self-expression and coping. John Lee Beatty’s set design for the bar was perfectly suited to Stan’s personality and a worn but popular hangout. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes were most effective in Jessie’s long dresses. Within the masterful ensemble, I found James Colby the most understated and fascinating, as he held the often elusive sense of peace together with figurative glue. He exuded pride in these private accomplishments. His final scenes were breathtaking. But, once again, this entire ensemble deserves kudos.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at