Rob Reviews "Sweat"
One of my favorite things about Sirius/XM is when they do the “specialty” channels throughout the year. (Stay with me here: I am going somewhere with this.) Whether it is the focus of a group like The Beatles of a specific genre like that year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the greatness that is Yacht Rock, their in-depth stories by the artists within the theme is nothing short of fascinating and educating for a music geek like me. One of my stop-downs (and currently going) is that of Billy Joel, whose music has been a big part of my life, and the open approach he takes between the songs to tell the origins of his biggest (and not as much) hits keeps me locked in while it is on. I have always felt like one of his most underrated hits (if such a thing exists) is “Allentown,” which tells the story of a small industrial town in Pennsylvania dealing with the changing times that affect the lives of its residents as factories are shut down, leaving the people there in poverty and pain. About 40 miles southwest of Allentown is Reading (pronounced “redding”), but their similarities don’t stop in the state where they both lie, and this is where Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” takes place, and it is currently running at legendary Dallas stage venue Kalita Humphreys Theatre.
Starting in 2008, a parole officer is finding out the current status of Jason (Kyle Igneczi) and Chris (Ace Henderson) after what is relayed as a horrific and life-changing event eight years earlier that put both of them in prison. As the story flashes back to a local bar, we meet Tracey (Sally Nystuen Vahle), Cynthia (Liz Mikel), and Jessie (Barbra Wengerd), three best friends who work at the local steel factory and have been for many years, and even multi-generational in a couple of cases. They spend their off time at the bar with their friend and former cohort Stan (Jon Shaver), and when one of them is promoted to a supervisory position, their relationships start to strain, and that is multiplied exponentially as the 200 recession settles in and what starts as a professional jealousy turns into all-out war between the three friends, their families, and even some collateral damage.
One of the things that makes the Humphreys effective is the turntable that is installed in the center of its stage, and it is perfect for this performance. There are three basic sets here: the bar, the porch just outside its entrance, and a simple cinder block room that doubles as the police station and the houses of two of the characters, and they are all done wonderfully, accompanied by transitions between them that are smooth and precise. Using video and audio from the time keeps everything in check in order to not take the audience out of the time that it is set in.
And as awesome as that it is, it fails without a cast that can take a VERY dialogue-intensive script and deliver it, and this cast sticks the landing with the professionalism and top-notch talent that we as an audience has come to expect from the Diane and Hal Bierley Resident Acting Company and Actors’ Equity Association. The only word I can use to describe this particular production is “intense” because its material runs the full spectrum of emotion, keeping me on the edge of my seat until the story completely unfolds and the house lights went up. Each character is so richly written and portrayed that I felt like I was right there in the middle of the action. As they story heads towards its fever-pitch of a climax, the cast creates a real and palpable tension that made it feel like there was a communal exhale as they came to accept the well-deserved adulation of the people in the seats.
I cannot recommend “Sweat” enough. It’s story holds as much relevance in our current society as it does in the almost two decades ago that it takes place, drawing parallels to the struggles that our industrial sector continues to go through as well as the professional relationships between friends, people, and organizations. If you are lucky enough to have a local theatre troupe that carries the level of talent that we have in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, this is more than worth the time taken to take it all in.