Review: Sweat at Everyman Theatre

By: Jack Rizzo

Sweat, which opened on Friday at Everyman Theatre, is a timely masterpiece brimming with heartbreaking relatability. Set up the road in the blue-collar town of Reading, Pennsylvania, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play explores the real-life consequence of deindustrialization leading up to the 2008 recession.
The story begins in 2008 with a meeting between a parole officer (Jason B. McIntosh) and two ex-convicts, Jason (Matthew Alan Ward) and Chris (Vaughn Ryan Midder). Flashing back to eight years earlier, we begin to learn the circumstances that put these men in prison. In addition, we are introduced to a lively group of friends who work at the steel mill and unwind at the same bar just as they’ve done for 20 years.
Vaughn Ryan Midder, Matthew Ward, and Kurt Rhoads in Sweat at Everyman. Photo Credit: ClintonBPhotography
Most of the play occurs in Daniel Ettinger’s radiantly designed Pennsylvania bar, the meeting place and cauldron where the locals of Reading come to drown their sorrows under the familial care of Stan (Kurt Rhoads), the barkeep. Stan continually protects his barback Oscar (Alejandro Ruiz), a Reading-born man with a Colombian heritage who is seen as inferior to the factory workers. The fierce working-class women, played with authentic precision, include Tracey (Deborah Hazlett), enraged at corporate’s inadequate concern for devoted workers, and Jessie (Megan Anderson), who mostly drinks until her troubles are numb. The group is completed by their African-American friend Cynthia (Dawn Ursula), who finds herself being promoted off the factory floor to the benefit of her own fortune. Castaway from her once loyal friend group, and with no support from her deadbeat husband Brucie (Jaben Early), Cynthia is forced to do what she thinks is best.

As the play unfolds, we learn of the situations that start to pit these friends against one another; job cuts, downsizing, and poverty. It’s the untold story of the people who built this nation while chasing the American Dream. Only to find themselves out of a job, with no hope of fulfilling that once promising notion.

The strength of this ensemble lies in their unity. With vivid direction by Vincent M. Lancisi, the actors breathe humanity and truth into a story of loss and heartache. The chemistry between Ursula and Hazlett is dynamic, rousing, and stimulating. As a supporting character, Rhoads is the constant that holds everything together. His performance is both authentic and poignant.

While the majority of the show remained hyper-realistic, the stage combat distracted from one of the most important moments of the play. The fight choreography, conceived by Lewis Shaw, contained elaborate ambition but the execution was flawed. Admittedly, I saw the show in previews and I have full confidence that this was mended before opening night.
I had the privilege to sit next to a gentleman who was born in 1937 and has made Baltimore his home. Like many, he had experienced loss during the recession as a worker for Bethlehem Steel when they went bankrupt in 2001. As the lights darkened on intermission, he adamantly whispered over the entr'acte, “That’s what Trump is trying to do, bring the jobs back.”

With a deep breath, I sunk down in my chair. This play was more real now than ever.

If you go:
By: Lynn Nottage
Directed by: Vincent M. Lancisi
When: October 23, 2018 - November 25, 2018
Where: Everyman Theatre
  315 West Fayette Street
  Baltimore, MD 21201
Running Time: 2hr 30min (including 1 intermission)