Pictured (Front): Cecilia Ananya, Vanessa A. Davis, and Jan Rogge. (Back) Greg Butell and Lewis J. Morrow. Photo by Cynthia Levin.
By Bec Pennington
Seated in the small theater before the start, approving murmurs are already spreading through the room. The thrust stage has no benefit of traditional curtains to surprise us, and we are impressed with the view of a very complete, layered scene, expertly designed by Gene Friedman. The details of the set envelope us; just sitting in the space effectively transforms us into patrons in a bar. But the opening moments do not go the way we expect, and this becomes the theme of the evening, as the story grabs us, shakes us, refuses to let go.
Lynn Nottage’s SWEAT is a study in love, hate, hurt and humanity. Her characters are complicated individuals; the natural dialog, entrusted to exactly the right actors, is so believable it’s hard to remember that one person penned it all. The story unfolds out of chronological order, the consequences of the narrative presented first. The bulk of it is a series of flashbacks in the bar, everyday interactions, friendships in development and decline, all overshadowed by looming changes in their lives none of them can control, even though they desperately try. All nine members of Unicorn Theatre’s amazing cast meet the expectations set by this ambitious writer and keep us engrossed from beginning to end. Teddy Trice, Matthew J. Lindblom, Jan Rogge, and Cecilia Ananya build great chemistry as two pairs of good friends weathering their circumstances in very different ways. Lewis J. Morrow’s descent into addiction is complex and sympathetic. Justin Barron, quietly builds tension with the subtle supporting nature of his role until the final incredible moments. Greg Butell is utterly likable as the ever-present bartender, Stan.
Set in the turn of the century and then eight years later as the economy was struggling and long-standing American manufacturers were mass outsourcing to avoid rising costs and circumvent labor unions, SWEAT focuses on the blue collar workers of a small Pennsylvania town. Their dreams have been swallowed up, first by the daily grind at the mills and plants themselves, then by the gutting of even those opportunities as their future is coldly sacrificed for profit. Loyalty is among the greatest of virtues, personal success is suspicious, bitterness is a way of life. The nostalgic barroom tales and traditions offer insight into deep camaraderie, but also the deeper dysfunction that eats at each relationship and threatens to eventually destroy them entirely. By the conclusion, Stan’s casual musing of Act 1 becomes a haunting irony, “Bottom line, they don’t understand that human decency is at the core of everything.” This production is a must-see.
SWEAT runs through November 11. For more information visit unicorntheatre.org.