Sweat by Lynn Nottage. Image Credit: Gamm Theatre

Sweat, now playing at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick, is a powerful play that explores friendships and friendships gone awry, race, economy, all set in the troubled community of Reading, Pennsylvania.

Lynn Nottage won a Pulitzer for Sweat, and the play was nominated for Tony awards on Broadway for Best Play, and two of its actresses for best supporting actress.

This a play not to be missed, and one that will reach deep into your emotions as you witness the disintegration of friendships in the wake of lost jobs at the steel factory, where many were employed. The setting, a bar in Reading, where friends would meet for drinks, celebrate events, and remain oblivious to the signs of a troubling local economy.

Nottage spent years researching a community where 40 percent of its residents were reportedly impoverished, among the most poverty-stricken communities in America.

I saw the play on Broadway, when it was in previews, and have considered the play and its Broadway performance among the most powerful I have ever seen. I come to it with a union background, so there is much here to which I can relate. 

The Gamm production is very good, perhaps not to the Broadway standards, but not far off. To be fair, seeing Sweat for the second time there are no surprises for me, in a play that is filled with surprises, and an end that leaves the audience stunned. On Broadway when the play ended, the audience sat in silence for a few seconds before rising in unison in thunderous applause. And so it was also at the Gamm.

The play begins with a meeting between a parole officer and two ex-convicts, and drifts in time to the fictional Reading bar and three women, childhood friends, who all work at the nearby steel mill.

As troubles loom at the steel mill, one of the women is promoted to a management position, and the company begins moving equipment and jobs to Mexico. The union goes on strike, and tensions at the bar increase, money is short, and relationships strained. 

At the center are not only the women, but the two parolees (the sons of two of the women), the bartender, Stan (played by Steve Kidd), and an employee of the bar, Oscar (played by Jaime Jose Hernandez. 

Sometimes deep dramas make it difficult to understand the underlying message. Not here. It’s crystal clear, and Nottage’s research brings to life the reality of a struggling community.

I often mention that it’s my belief that while history books can chronicle a particular moment in time, it’s only through the arts (stage, music, dance, visual) that we learn about the soul of a society. Sweat let’s us do that.

The set was adequate constrained in some sense by its actual size. Where the expanse of the Broadway stage allowed more separation between the parolees’ interview and the bar, everything at the Gamm was in the bar, leaving to the audience imagination the different settings for things like a parole office or a small home.

Each of the actors played their parts well – maybe a little understated in the first act, but clearly with tremendous passion in the event filled, second act. In particular, I thought Steve Kidd was exceptional as Stan the bartender; Eric Robles as Chris, one of the sons; and Jaime Jose Hernandez as Oscar the bar helper.

Conor Delaney as Jason, Kym Gomes as Cynthia, Casey Seymour Kim as Tracey, Jermaine L. Pearson as Even (the parole officer), Jason Quinn as Brucie, and Kelly Seigh as Jessie all play their parts well.  

The play is directed by Rachel Walshe, who does an outstanding job, and with special recognition to Normand Beauregard, the fight director. 

Sweat plays at the Gamm through November 27. For tickets, call 401-723-4266 or visit the theatre’s website at www.gammtheatre.org.

Frank Prosnitz

Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal....