Stellar cast animates Pioneer Theatre’s harrowing worker tale, “Sweat”

Sun Mar 31, 2019 at 2:16 pm
By Edward Reichel

Nafeesa Monroe as Cynthia and Vince McGill as Brucie in “Sweat.” Photo courtesy of Pioneer Theatre.

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, currently playing at Pioneer Theatre, is a gritty, unflinching study of how the Great Recession affects a small group of friends from the same factory in a working-class Pennsylvania city, and how individuals cope when their livelihoods are threatened.

The workers meet regularly at a bar run by Stan, a former plant employee who was injured on the job. The bar is the play’s centerpiece, where the characters lives and stories unfold, where the friends from work discuss their day and unwind before heading home, and where a conflict over jobs escalates into life-altering violence.

Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner opens in 2000, when everyone has work and life seems good. Then the story shifts to 2008. Now people are losing their jobs and the plant’s owners, seeking to save money, demand a 60 percent pay cut from rank-and-file employees. They refuse and go on strike. The owners retaliate by locking them out and hiring non-union “scabs” for a fraction of the striking workers’ wages.

In looking for a scapegoat, the ousted employees take their frustration out first on Cynthia, a co-worker promoted to a desk job that required her to deliver the owners’ demands. Then they turn their anger on Oscar, the bar’s busboy and a Latino, who took one of the scab jobs to supplement his income. Goaded on by Tracey, a striking worker, two young men, Jason and Chris, confront Oscar as he’s leaving the bar. A fight breaks out. Oscar is brutally beaten and Stan, trying to break it up, is struck in the head with a baseball bat.

Sweat needs a powerful cast, and Pioneer Theatre has assembled a remarkable group of actors who, at Saturday evening’s performance, brought to full life the bleak hopelessness that pervades the story.

Nafeesa Monroe gives a memorable portrayal as Cynthia, who feels betrayed by her old work friends as she climbs the company ladder but still tries to mend fences and cope with the fallout. Christopher Duval gives a thoughtful, well-rounded performance as Stan, the bartender and steady figure around whom the others swarm, an instinctive mediator who offers sensible advice and tries to ease tensions — eventually at severe cost to himself.

Vince McGill is heart-wrenching as Brucie, Cynthia’s ex-husband, who tries to convince her to take him back. Brucie is a sad and at times pathetic character, and when he loses his job, he sinks into a morass of drugs and alcohol and homelessness.

Callum Adams and Hassiem Muhammad, as Oscar’s antagonists, Jason and Chris, respectively, also give strong performances. Jason, the more hotheaded of the two, starts the fight with Oscar. Chris tries to intervene but is drawn in by the emotional intensity of the confrontation. As Brucie’s son, Chris also has to deal with his father’s descent into self-destruction. He’s a complicated character and Muhammad does him full justice.

The standout is Margot White as Tracey, in a stellar performance. Tracey is an indelible character: the life of the party when things are good; and an instigator when things turn bad. It’s a difficult, multi-faceted role, and White acquits herself wonderfully.

In smaller, well-acted roles that are also essential to the success of the play, Jay Ward plays Evan, a parole officer; Xavier Reyes is Oscar; and Susanna Florence is Jessie. A friend of Cynthia and Tracey, Jessie deals with her problems by not dealing at all and drinking herself into a stupor, just one of the responses dramatized by Sweat to living under economic siege.

Director Mary B. Robinson paces the story well and allows the action and the numerous scene changes to flow seamlessly.

Sweat runs through April 13 at Pioneer Theatre.; 801-581-6961. 

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