By Kimberly Rau
“Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Lynn Nottage opened at Gamm this week, providing a raw glimpse into how the us vs. them mentality can create cataclysmic rifts in the tightest-knit of groups.
It’s the year 2000. Jason and Chris are two friends in their early twenties, living in the industrial Reading, Penn. They’ve been raised on the notion that getting a good job at Olstead’s steel factory and putting in years of hard work with the support of the local union is their ticket to security and a pension upon retirement. Chris has greater aspirations of going to school to become a teacher. Everyone except his mother, Cynthia, thinks he’s out of his mind. She also works at the factory, along with her best friends Jessie and Tracey, who, consequently, is Jason’s mother. Chris’ dad worked for a different factory until his union went on strike, and has been on a downward spiral ever since.
All of the action takes place in a local dive bar, where the same guy (Stan, who also worked for Olstead’s until an injury made that impossible) serves the same flat beer to the same crowd of union workers coming off their shift. Tensions grow when Cynthia gets promoted to a management position over Tracey. Suddenly not one of the floor workers, Cynthia is viewed as suspect, especially when rumors of production getting sent to Mexico start flying. Then the factory lockouts happen, and, instead of turning their anger towards the factory owners, the group turns on itself until things reach a boiling point and the unthinkable happens. Jason and Chris end up in prison, serving almost a decade each, and life in Reading turns sour for those who put their faith in a job that had been chewing up and spitting out the locals for generations.
This already-stellar script gets even better under Rachel Walshe’s direction with a top-tier cast. Eric Robles (Chris) and Conor Delaney (Jason) have a natural rapport that translates well to the fraught friendship their two characters share. Steve Kidd is, as always, excellent, this time masterfully playing bartender Stan, who tries hard to remain neutral when the infighting begins. Casey Seymour Kim takes on the role of powder-keg Tracey, a hardworking woman with a martyr complex and strong ideas of what loyalty looks like. Kym Gomes plays Tracey’s counterpoint, the equally hardworking Cynthia, who just wants to make a better life for her family and doesn’t see why her promotion has to affect her friendships. Jessie is the perpetually drunk friend who probably needs rehab but manages to stay out of most of the conflict. She’s played by Kelly Seigh, who finds the right balance of humor and tragedy to do Jessie justice.
Jaime Jose Hernandez plays Oscar, the dishwasher at the bar who wishes he could get a job at Olstead’s, despite seeing what the factory does to every person who comes into the bar after work. A quiet character who literally keeps his head down most of the time, he winds up at the center of the show’s biggest conflict. Hernandez plays all of this beautifully. Jason Quinn plays Brucie, Chris’ dad who’s proud union beliefs end up being his undoing. While it feels wrong to say he’s a “pleasure to watch” when portraying the show’s biggest train wreck, Quinn is a strong actor who always brings something good to his roles, and such is the case here. And finally, Jermaine L. Pearson plays parole officer Evan, a small but important role that helps Jason and Chris work through all that has happened to them over the 8 years the show spans.
This is a show that sheds light on class warfare, one of the less-discussed but looming issues in America, both then and now. At times difficult to watch but ringing with truth, Sweat shows the audience what happens when an entire class of people reaches its breaking point, when friends and family become the targets of desperate frustration, as the real enemy takes everything away. Walshe and her cast execute this work exceptionally, making Sweat one show you don’t want to miss.
“Sweat” runs through Nov. 27 at The Gamm Theatre, Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266. Masks are now optional unless specifically indicated for a certain performance.