Once again, Phoenix Theatre demonstrates that it has its finger on the pulse of our society with its production of Lynn Nottage‘s 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning “Sweat.” At a time when many are perplexed as to why those who can afford it the least vote against their own self-interests, this potent play portrays Trump’s “forgotten people” and as the Wall Street Journal wrote, “explains” why Trump won the election. This is the last production staged on the Livia & Steve Russell main stage before The Phoenix moves to its new home at 705 N. Illinois. “Sweat” runs through March 4. I attended Friday’s opening night performance.
“Sweat” is set in the year 2000, in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, a town that has been severely impacted by unemployment due to jobs being sent out of the country. Dealing with issues that include poverty, racial polarization, economic inequities, education, and identity, the drama is a searing commentary on the reality of our country’s blue-collar workforce. The play centers on three women who were childhood friends, but whose friendship deteriorates when two of them, one white and the other black, apply for the same management job and the latter is promoted. Tensions increase and things unravel further when jobs are moved to Mexico, their union goes on strike, and the company locks the workers out. Nottage also portrays the devastating personal costs of deindustrialization by letting the audience see how the women are faring eight years later, as well as the unsettling outcome for two of the mothers’ sons who also work in the factory. Caught in the crosshairs of the conflicting parties are a wise bartender and his helper, a Latino who dreams of bettering himself.
What struck me most about Nottage’s script was the authenticity of her character’s dialogue. Having grown up in a blue-collar environment and pro-union household, I am quite familiar with the vernacular and culture she captured so incredibly well. Her play is based on interviews she did with Reading resident, among the poorest in the country, regarding their concerns and sensibilities. Her play indicates she did her research extremely well. She also managed to powerfully portray the betrayal and rage felt by her characters towards the fictional company that had promised them permanent jobs and pensions, but in the end tossed them aside.
Directed by Phoenix founder Bryan Fonseca, the production is yet another example of his gift for casting because, once again, he has found just the right actors who get inside their characters and draw you completely into the story with their veracity and truthfulness.
Chief among those is the gifted former Indy actor Diane Kondrat, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. She plays Tracey, a tough-as-nails, combative, and no-holds-barred personality who demands loyalty from friends and co-workers and certainly the company she feels she has given her life to. Once she feels abandoned and disposed of, there is no forgiveness, only revenge. A one-of-a-kind character actor, Kondrat’s transformation was as complete as I have seen on any stage, anytime, anywhere and was a bravura performance.
Also thoroughly convincing was Dena Toler as Cynthia, whose promotion to management enrages Tracey and ultimately reveals her deep-seated racism, as she accuses her life-long friend of getting the job because she is black instead of being deserving and qualified. The scenes between Toler and Kondrat were, at times, absolutely riveting for the tension they conveyed.
Phoenix regular Rob Johansen as Stan also turned in a fine performance as the kindhearted, benevolent bartender who better understands his patrons and their work conflicts, but eventually pays a heavy price for his natural role as a mediator and peacemaker. Johansen also serves as the production’s fight choreographer. SPOILER ALERT: It’s fairly obvious that something ominous is bound to happen toward the end of the play. All the anger that builds up in the marginalized characters has to go somewhere, so when it finally does, the violence is fairly shocking. Johansen helped the actors make it look very, very realistic.
It occurred to me after seeing the play that for all the frustration and resentment many feel toward Trump supporters and the cult of personality surrounding the president, that “Sweat” goes a long way toward helping one understand the rationale of those who voted him in. That may or may not convince anyone to accept the current state of our national affairs, but after seeing “Sweat,” even if they don’t find comfort, they may find understanding or at least compassion for the disenfranchised who have put their faith in a leader who promises to bring back their jobs.
Tickets for “Sweat” are available by calling the box office at (317) 635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org. Tickets are: $27 for regular Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Opening night Friday and Saturdays at 8:00 pm are $33.