BY SANDY STAGGS
USC Upstate Theatre delivered one their finest dramatic outings in recent memory this weekend with Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat.
Brimming with commentary about the working class, economic divide, and addiction, Sweat, directed by Lee Neibert, director the Theatre and Chair of Fine Arts and Communication Studies, shifts back and forth in time from 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania right smack in the middle of the Rust Belt.
Set in a fictional drinking hole managed by bartender Stan (a keen and insightful showing by Bradley Roberts) who used to work at Olstead’s Steel Tubing plant before an accident sidelined him, Sweat centers on two middle-aged friends who work at the same facility and frequent their favorite bar – Cynthia and Tracey, played by Avyonna Ballew and Erika Montgomery, respectively.
Cynthia is African-American and Tracey is Caucasian and their sons – also employees at Olstead’s like generations before them – are also best friends. Senior Kyle McIntyre (Jason) in his most powerful performance to date, and African-American sophomore Pen Valentine in his stage debut.
When a middle management position opens up at the plant, uneducated Cynthia and Tracey opine about applying for the job, but both concede the corporation will likely bring in some Ivy League white guy from outside the company instead of plucking one of their own for the promotion.
Yet, when Cynthia surprisingly lands the new gig, their friendship splinters as Tracey considers her pal a traitor as the company seeks to renogotiatrenegotiate their Union contract with deep concessions for the rank-and-file employees with the threat of moving their jobs to Mexico.
The workers go on strike and the pressure of economic stress as their livelihoods are threatened lead to tragic consequences for all. Even though this play has closed, I won’t reveal the shocking ending.
News reports at the top of each scene such Dow Jones activity, the 2000 presidential election campaign, NAFTA, etc., help define the mood and ongoing financial crisis seething as the characters struggle to survive.
The result is an intense drama filled with conflicts, tension, painful truths and a descent into chaos, and stupendous, powerful performances all around.
Ballew’s Cynthia oozes realism and empathy as she walks a fine line between her loyalty to her friends and co-workers and her own self-preservation, and as she encourages her son to pursue an education and rise out of the cycle of a laborious unrewarding future.
Montgomery is engaging and fierce in her anger and despair over being being betrayed by her best friend and the system that favors the bottom over the human costs.
McIntyre transforms himself physically with prison tattoos (that appear and disappear with the time shifts) into a young hothead with machismo into a hardened criminal and addict, a recurring theme that is prescient first with the appearance of Brucie, (portrayed by Lo’Heem Miller), Cynthia’s addict husband and also the victim of a similar “downsizing” of a local textile mill years before.
Valentine excels in his role as Chris, the college-bound kid who seems to the only character that accepts redemption and reformation, even though it’s through a newfound faith in Christianity.
Roberts captures his character’s working man’s worldliness with aplomb and authority, particularity in the climax.
Guest actor Juan Williamson as Oscar the immigrant busboy lurks about the proceedings until act two when he becomes a scab and becomes the physical embodiment of the gang’s hostility and a target for taking away their jobs.
Miller is convincing as the play’s first casualty of the Wall Street vs. Main Street trend and an entertaining Lola Mann rounds out the cast as co-worker and lush Jessie.
The bar setting designed by student Zachary Urban is stupendous, rich in every detail, and expansive in his ingenious use of steel in his concept: a metal ladder to the roof with plumbing and conduits and a massive two-to-three foot diameter pipeline suspended above the set, and eschewing the back curtain to expose the theatre’s actual steel conduits that add to the industrial theme of the play, Bravo, Zachary!
Neibert elicits powerful, nuanced and organic performances from his cast in a production that looks good and drives home the urgency and stakes at play in this heartbreaking story that, in essence, explains Donald Trump’s rise to power: the human casualties of the new industrialization age and the 21st century economy.