“Sweat” at the Unicorn: Tough, Uncompromising Theater with a Message

If you wonder why some members of the working class became Trump supporters, then check out the Unicorn Theatre’s production of “Sweat,” a drama that won playwright Lynn Nottage her second Pulitzer Prize. 

Nottage depicts racial animosity, class resentment and economic disparity as friendships are destroyed and lives forever altered in this carefully constructed play. Set in Reading, Pa., the story alternates between explosive events in 2000 and the sad aftermath in 2008. Most of the action takes place in a watering hole where friendships forged by years spent together on the factory floor find a safe harbor.

But when workers learn the factory is moving operations to Mexico, all those warm feelings of kinship go away. The friendships Nottage depicts are fragile. The point is simple: Workers want permanence and security, but big business couldn’t care less. The corporate economy is an indifferent entity that morphs and changes, like water seeking its own level. In the end, people inevitably retreat to “their own kind,” leaving trust and mutual compassion trampled in the dust. 

The Unicorn production, directed by Ian R. Crawford, offers strong performances and handsome design work. Most of the action unfolds in a neighborhood bar, impressively realized by scenic designer Gene Friedman. Among the regulars are besties Tracey (Jan Rogge), who is white, and Cynthia (Cecilia Ananya), an African-American. Tracey is a union member, like her father before her, while Cynthia aspires to become part of management. 

Their close relationship extends to their respective sons, Jason (Matthew Lindblom), who seems always on the verge of exploding with nervous energy, and the thoughtful Chris (Teddy Trice), who envisions a life beyond factory work. Also on hand are the boozy Jessie (Vanessa A. Davis), the seen-it-all bartender Stan (Greg Butell), Cynthia’s estranged and unemployed husband Brucie (Lewis Morrow) and Oscar (Justin Barron), a Latino who busses tables at the bar but keeps an eye out for opportunities. 

Rounding out the cast in the 2008 sequences is Keenan Ramos as Evan, a parole officer. 

This is one talented bunch of actors. Rogge, who has performed at most of the theaters in town, delivers some of her best work as Tracey, whose ethnic prejudices come to the surface with breathtaking speed. Ananya, in her first Unicorn appearance in several years, handles Cynthia’s complicated emotional arc with skill. Morrow, who is also a playwright, delivers a standout performance as the ne’er-do-well Brucie. The charismatic Davis brings acute humor to the piece as a regular who drinks too much. Butell’s performance as Stan sneaks up on you as the bartender evolves from happy-talker to philosopher as events propel him to an unhappy end. Lindblom offers controlled manic energy as Jason. Trice exudes relaxed charisma as Chris. Barron delivers a nicely understated performance as Oscar. And Ramos inhabits Evan, the parole officer with effortless authority. 

Arwen White’s costumes make an important contribution. So does Emily Swenson’s lighting. And fight choreographer Logan Black stages a brief but memorable brawl as intricate as it is impressive. 

The events of this play are set years before the the notion of Trump as president would have been anything other than a punchline. But the divisiveness encouraged by the current occupant of the White House hovers over the play. Nottage weaves a complex set of attitudes among her characters and in doing so shows us why white union workers, who once assumed they had jobs for life, would respond to rhetoric meant to stoke racial prejudices and class resentment. 

Nottage personally conducted interviews with laid-off workers in Pennsylvania and her dedication to capturing the complicated reality of an abandoned community yields a play that honorably tries to presents all points of view fairly. She’s never preachy but at times watching this show is a little like doing homework. In the end, Nottage depicts a terrible situation beyond help. 

And I must point out that the vagaries of an economy controlled by modern-day robber barons extends to many people beyond blue-collar workers. For some people, including plenty of white-collar workers and the self-employed, union membership would be an extravagant luxury. 

“Sweat” runs through Nov. 11 at the Unicorn Theatre. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org. 

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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