Fear and Loathing in Reading
By Jim Reiter
The chasm between the haves and the have-nots is on full display at the Bowie Playhouse as 2nd Star Productions presents Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat.
Set in the year 2000, with the occasional scene in 2008, Sweat focuses on the workers of a fictional factory in the very real Reading, Pennsylvania. These workers spend their time off at a local bar run by Stan (Brian Binney), whose career was ended by an accident on the factory floor.
The daily jauntiness of longtime co-workers at ease morphs quickly into the tension of economic reality as rumors swirl about the factory demanding dramatic concessions from its workers, including a 60 percent pay cut. Those tensions turn racial as two long-time floor workers, one white (Pam Northrup) and one Black (Cheryl Thompson), vie for the same management job. Adding fuel to the fire, the bar’s Colombian-American busboy (Alexander Ose) becomes a scab at the plant that has locked out striking workers protesting jobs moving to Mexico.
The set, beautifully designed by Gene Valendo, is a perfectly realized run-down bar that invites us to listen in on the funny—and often fiery—conversations that pepper Nottage’s plot. Indeed, her script calls for the dialogue to have “the free-flowing velocity of a bar conversation: people step on each other’s thoughts, but also occasionally find moments of silence and introspection.”
Director Cody Jones nurtures an engaging cohesiveness among her talented cast members, whose chemistry is clear whether delivering the comedy of typical bar back-and-forth banter or the passionate anger of economic and racial frustration.
With the bar stretched across the back of the stage, there is plenty of room for the actors to work in front of it. Yet, in several scenes, Jones has chosen to have a character leave their castmates behind and travel downstage to perform speeches that are meant to be a part of that “bar conversation.” Instead, they seem to break the fourth wall and address the audience, which is as awkward for us as it seems to be for the actors. At other times conversations that are happening upstage near the bar are blocked for the audience by actors placed downstage, awkwardly craning their necks to follow the action behind them.
Brian Binney gives us a Stan who genuinely enjoys the company of those he’s known for so many years, trading jabs and smiling his way through the frustrations we can see bubbling under his jovial facade. It’s a finely tuned performance.
Northrup’s Tracey is perfectly loud and raunchy and happy-go-lucky until the job she wants is taken by her friend with less experience on the floor. Thompson’s Cynthia, who gets the job, is a nicely realized performance that has us feeling her defensiveness and sadness that taking a step up the ladder has made her friends think she is looking down on them. Both performances reflect the uncertainty and frustration of people whose fates no longer seem to be in their own hands.
Ose as Oscar, the busboy-turned-scab, is also nicely defined as he moves from the quiet cleanup guy to a target of racial hatred for daring to cross the line in search of a better life.
Avan Martin as Cynthia’s son Chris and Joey Rolandelli as Tracey’s son Jason both nicely portray best friends who spend years in prison after they are goaded into an attack that has tragic unintended consequences. Chris aspires to a life beyond the factory; Jason aspires to nothing more than a new Harley. They’re an odd couple, but these fine performances make them completely believable as friends.
Also effective are Wendell Holland as Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie, Rose Talbot as co-worker and lush Jessie, and Brad Eaton as a parole officer in the 2008 scenes that bookend the play.
Nottage’s play is long for a drama typically performed in two and a half hours or less; 2nd Star’s version on opening night clocked in at a languid 2 hours 50 minutes. Part of this was due to an opening night that saw some cast members struggling to remember their lines, causing several scenes to drag. Here’s hoping that as the run progresses things tighten up.
Sweat is an important play telling important stories about important people; kudos to 2nd Star and Jones for bringing it to life.
Sweat runs through Sept. 3, FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, Bowie Playhouse, $25 w/discounts, RSVP: 2ndstarproductions.org or call 410-757-5700. Masks and proof of COVID vaccination are required.