Dezart Performs is currently presenting Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning play, SWEAT.  It is a powerful and riveting work dealing with the human consequences of 21st Century America as it shifts away from being the leading Industrial nation of the 20th Century. It crystalizes the devastating impact of the loss of entire industries and the countless jobs that vanish in the wake of these changes.

Specifically, the play focuses on Reading, Pennsylvania, a once thriving town, now struggling to find its place in the world as the various steel plants in the area shutter one after the other. For the record, this is not an entirely fictional work. Ms. Nottage based the play on a multitude of interviews conducted with the citizens of the area as they described the feelings they were experiencing during this period of transition.  The over-riding words used were helpless and hopeless.

The play begins in 2008 with a tough parole officer (Eddie Stephens) having heated meetings with 2 recently released convicts (& Corydon Melgoza). Each meeting with one of the ex-cons was designed to make a lasting impression and to underscore the seriousness of the choices that lie ahead of them. Both are young enough to still have a meaningful life if they can control their anger and stay on the right path. Before we learn much more about these men, the play quickly switches to the year 2000.  We are in a local bar run by Stan (Mike Truelock) who tries his best to keep a friendly and politically neutral atmosphere.  From time to time, he is helped by Oscar (Miguel Arballo) who comes from a Latino family and has a strong work ethic and is determined to do something with his life. 

The bar is a place where the mill employees, seemingly as many women as men, gather regularly after work.  It is here that we meet the 3 female workers who are at the core of this play: Cynthia (Desiree Clarke), an African-American who is keeping distance from her husband, Brucie (Cary Thompson), who has been out of work for some time and is likely developing a serious drug and alcohol problem. She is also the mother to Chris (Cortez Johnson) who is about to enter college and was one of the 2 ex-cons in the first scene.  Also present is Tracey (Theresa Jewett), longtime mill worker and mother to Jason, the other ex-con in the first scene.  The third woman in this trio of friends is Jessie (Melanie Blue), a hard-working and hard drinking mill worker. At the start, it is an ethnically mixed but totally harmonious group of friends.  The cracks quickly begin to show however when Cynthia is promoted to supervisor, taking her from the factory floor to the always air-conditioned world of the executives. Tracey feels that she should have gotten the job and that Cynthia got it solely on the basis of her color.

The cracks widen when Cynthia first warns her friends that drastic changes are desired by management. The cracks, however, turn into chasms when Cynthia is given the task of telling her ex-co-workers what management is asking the union for; a 60% wage cut plus cuts to their retirement plans.  The severity of these cuts sends the union workers out on strike.  It’s not long before scabs are crossing the picket line, including Oscar, and taking over their jobs as the union workers get locked out of the property, not even allowed to take their personal possessions in their lockers.

When situations get this heated, they often explode into violence and so it does in a terrifying and shocking act which brings the play full circle.  We are back to the parole officer and the two ex-cons but now we know who they are and what they’ve done and why. But knowing what we know brings up as many questions as are answered.  That’s just one of the many things that makes this play so intellectually stimulating. What makes it so affective is the humanity that Ms. Nottage has instilled in every character.  Though many are all ultimately suffering the same fate, the needs of each are as individual as can be.  While one may have a child with certain learning handicaps and will be lucky to graduate high school, another, even with a scholarship, is facing the extra costs of sending a child to college.  In short, everyone is deeply affected.  Sooner or later, the physical and mental strain of the situation will hit home for everyone involved.

Under Michael Shaw’s nuanced and thoughtful direction, each character feels 100% real and never approaches what could easily become stereotype caricatures.  Each actor makes you feel the joys (too few) and the pains (too many) caused by a situation not of their doing or desire.  It is impossible to single out any performer in this well-cast and perfectly balanced ensemble piece.  There are nine actors on the stage (the largest cast to date for Dezart Performs) each giving an emotionally strong performance and, I am happy to say, there is not a single weak link in the chain.  Bravo to all!!!!!

I am told the seats are going fast so if you want to experience this truly moving and intensely honest play, get your tickets NOW!!!!!

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