Theatre Aquarius gives audiences some troubling social realities to grapple with in its current mainstage production, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Sweat. It’s a play that should inspire some introspection about how we’re each positioned in an economy that works for some while it leaves an increasing swath of broken people in its wake. Sweat runs until February 15th, and is directed by Artistic Director, Ron Ulrich.
It moves back and forth over the course of eight years, focusing on three friends who work at a factory that has shaped the lives of many people in Reading, Pennsylvania. Two of them compete for a management job, and their friendship unravels when one gets the promotion off the factory floor. Conflict escalates as troubling patterns in the running of the factory lead to a locking out of the workers and the movement of the equipment to Mexico. Fear, anger and prejudice culminate in a horrifying crime that involves the sons of the two estranged friends.
I chuckled at the murmur of disapproval that rippled out from some of the older patrons at the profanity that peppered the dialogue. Then I ruminated on whether the profanity and bad grammar was being used stereotypically to denote working class people. Yet, many ‘regular people’ do speak this way everyday, whether on the streets of Reading or Hamilton. Perhaps I should have trusted in Nottage’s skill. By play’s end it’s abundantly clear she’s fleshed out her characters authentically and intimately, excavating their humanity, motivations, and fear. There was something beautifully transgressive about hearing rough language in a space (the stage) that Sweat’s own characters might dismiss as elitist and out of touch.
‘Tracy’ (Laurie Paton) made me uncomfortable, in part because I am also a white, blonde, middle aged woman. She’s a bit crude, occasionally shrill, and there’s something mean lurking in her. Perhaps it comes from accumulated feelings of rage, fear, pain, and helplessness. It’s certain that she would be a Trump supporter. She’s also hardworking, fun loving, proud, and fiercely loyal. In the climactic scene in the second half, Tracy eggs her son on to violence. Yet earlier, Paton shows her plaintive nostalgia for a world that is no more (in which she felt privileged and acknowledged). It feels painfully familiar.
Jeff Lillico is Tracy’s son ‘Jason,’ who we meet as a parolee, face marred by tattoos. It’s hard to be sympathetic, but gradually we learn there’s more to him. Shame. We can maybe empathize with a young man who has acted heinously and blindly, and destroyed his life as a result.
‘Cynthia’ (Nehassaiu deGannes) is the most likable and sympathetic of the characters. Cynthia is comfortable in her own skin, warm yet controlled, intelligent, and self aware. It’s tense watching her navigate Tracy’s vindictive jealousy and, later, all of her friends’ accusations of ‘selling out.’ She becomes a scapegoat in the old ‘divide and conquer’ technique that lets the wealthy and powerful get away unscathed. Through it all, she retains a flame of dignity.
When we meet ‘Chris’ (Tenaj Williams), he seems like a nice young man. Cynthia and Brucie’s son is earnest and intelligent, but he’s done something that has caused his prospects to come crashing down around him. It’s a testament to Williams’ abilities that, even in the moment before he commits his crime, we’re rooting for him. He seems hesitant, unsure, perhaps seeing the commonalities between himself and his victim rather than his friend and accomplice.
While ‘Jessie’ (Allison Hossack) is the friend about which we learn the least, it’s chilling to watch as her well being disintegrates quietly and alcoholism takes hold as time passes and hope dwindles.
E.B. Smith pulls double duty as ‘Evan’ the parole officer and Cynthia’s ex, ‘Brucie.’ Brucie possesses heartbreaking vulnerability as the locked out worker who tries valiantly to ‘hold the line’ and retain his principles and manhood, even as desolation takes hold.
For most of the play, ‘Oscar’ (Rene Escobar, Jr.) is a largely silent but constant presence. It mirrors his existence as ‘the other’ in his community. A Hispanic American, Oscar was raised in Reading, yet everyone assumes he’s a foreigner. He’s accepted so long as he’s silent and doesn’t make waves. When he asserts himself? The reaction is swift and vicious.
Lastly, ‘Stan’ (Randy Hughson) has been running the bar since an injury at the factory left him with a limp. He’s a constant in the lives of his patrons. It sounds as though Hughson’s adopted a gruff, theatrical affect to his voice, and it sometimes pulled my focus from what he was saying. Yet it’s Hughson who has the most shattering moment in the play, eliciting gasps at his plight. It’s in those last moments we realize how fond we’ve grown of him.
Kudos to set designer Doug Paraschuk. Most of the action takes place in a realistic looking bar that feels solid. It’s easy to believe that we’re witnessing the story from a nearby table. With beautiful economy, additional scenes show the outside of the bar, the parole officer’s office, and the apartments of the two mothers.
A favourite element is a red, digital ‘ticker’ that runs above the stage, punctuating changes in time and space with real news items from those dates. The seemingly random collection of facts subtly furthered the tension, that the world of the ‘haves’ was running out of sync with the realities of the ‘have nots.’ Corwin Ferguson (video designer) has created something very cool here.
Sweat is a serious, multilayered play, full of moments in which we can, sometimes uncomfortably, recognize ourselves, our friends, and our neighbours. It focuses on a group of workers in Pennsylvania, but it’s easy to see how the same patterns can replicate themselves in towns far beyond. V
Presented by Theatre Aquarius,
At the Dofasco Centre for the Arts,
190 King William Street,
to February 15, 2020,
Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm,
Saturday and Sunday Matinees:
February 8, 9,15, at 1:30pm.
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or
online at tickets.theatreaquarius.org