Humans are so very fragile. Their love is fragile. Their hope is fragile. So is their confidence. And their skulls are fragile. When your sense of belonging is shattered, where do you find any resilience, how do you patch the fragility to survive for another day?
This production of ‘Sweat’ begs to be seen and thought about and discussed. This is a cast that is so uniformly good that they break your heart. It’s an elegy for a bygone era and a warning about giving our hearts to supposed safety. In a way, it’s all of us.
Set in a fictional bar in Reading, PA, “Sweat” follows two families and their closest friends, all of whom are connected to a mill, and have been for two to three generations. This is a story of what happens when your identity begins to crumble, your personal economy goes into freefall, and the baser instincts of humans toward the perceived “other” leap out.
Stan (Tim Seltzer) runs a neighborhood bar, where Tracey (Julie Herber), Cynthia (Rona Mensah), and Jessie (Lia Seltzer) come to celebrate birthdays, commiserate, and root for each other. Stan used to work at the mill, until an accident, but a piece of his heart still stands with the union and the mill. The women are tight, until a chance for a promotion pits Tracey and Cynthia against each other. As perceived betrayals, a strike and the death rattle of a way of life begin to crush them, we can only sit and bear witness.
As Tracey, Herber is brash and blunt and she just struts through her world. But when things go badly you feel the raw pain she feels and realize vulnerable she really is. Cynthia is a survivor, and that will destroy her friendship with Tracey and Jessie. Mensah imbues her character with an everyperson quality of reaching for a little more for her family and herself, and the cost you pay sometimes.
Jessie is initially one of the most troubled characters; she’s the hardest character to feel sympathy for because she’s drowning and won’t do anything about it. But then, as more of her life is revealed, you begin to wonder, how would I take the death of every major dream I’ve had?
Liam Watkins, who plays the son of the strong-willed Tracey, gives a strong performance as a sad, lost soul who has trouble facing a reality different that what he imagined. As Cynthia’s son, Chris, Najee Banks is gloriously alive when he sees his broader horizon, and painfully caught still by old loyalties. Both of these young men just needed some time, but they didn’t get it and couldn’t adapt fast enough. You feel the loss in your bones.
Oscar is not an easy role—he’s not an immigrant (he was born in Reading), but he’s Hispanic and his role stands in for all immigrants. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, but Daniel Valentin-Morales manages to scale the part to a human size while still representing a changing society.
As this brilliant play by Lynn Nottage makes clear, it’s very much a one-sided bargain. These women have devoted their adult lifetimes to the mill. They see it as a point of pride; but what to them is a sacred bargain is only a business arrangement to the owners and managers (those “Wharton MBAs” who are afraid to get their shoes dirty by coming down on the mythical floor). These characters are willing to cling to anybody/anything that promises it will come back. ‘Sweat’ was written in 2015—and won the Pulitzer in 2017—and is frighteningly prescient of the present.
The writing is layered and so real you feel you’re sitting at the bar watching with gentle amusement and maybe some envy the antics of these friends—they ground each other. This cast is so good you care about them; it’s one of the few times I have watched an audience come back from intermission early to see what’s going to happen next.
The production values are exquisite. The set is beautifully laid out by Eric Berninghausen (scenic designer), with Tabetha White (scenic charge) and James McGarvey (properties designer). The lighting by Doug Grove hints at the passing of time and frames the action. One thing that worked to quickly and unobtrusively set the time for each scene was the bar television—whether tuned to a local TV station or CNN or MSNBC—the news clips were genius.
This production of “Sweat” begs to be seen, and thought about, and discussed. This is a cast that is so uniformly good that they break your heart. It’s an elegy for a bygone era and a warning about giving our hearts to supposed safety. In a way, it’s all of us.
Advisory: Language, sexual inuendo, a fight. For mature audiences.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“Sweat” runs through September 29, 2019 at Maryland Ensemble Theatre, Frederick, MD. For more information, please click here.