Theatre Review: SWEAT at Philadelphia Theatre Co

PTC is back with Lynn Nottage’s Sweat!

On Wednesday night Producing Artistic Director, Paige Price and Managing Director, Emily Zeck stood before the packed opening night audience and enthusiastically declared, “We’re back.”  Philadelphia Theatre Company has represented quality theater in the city for years, and they were sorely missed on their one-year hiatus.  However, nothing says we’re back like the sterling production of Lynn Nottage’s, timely, Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat.

Director Justin Emeka helms this examination of the people and situation that elected our current President.  Set in Reading, PA (identified as the country’s most economically depressed city in 2011) between 2000 and 2008 Sweat examines the choking of the middle class in America.  Nottage zeros in on the working class and shows the fragile underbelly of society that erupts into an “us v them” mentality as soon as pressure is applied.

Structurally it is a memory play.  It opens on a bare stage where a parole officer (Brian Anthony Wilson who nicely balances caring and menace) is talking to two young men who have recently been released from prison.  These two were once fast friends but now find themselves estranged.  The play examines how they got to this situation and examines the events and pressures that changed their world.

Pictured from L-R is Rich Hebert as Stan, Kittson O’Neill as Tracey and Kimberly S. Fairbanks as Cynthia .

Jason (Matteo Scammell whose misdirected energy is omnipresent) and Chris (Walter DeShields whose reasoned approach is a perfect counterpoint to Jason.)  Jason is caucasian, and Chris is black.  As the curtain rises to reveal an impeccably detailed local bar, we see that this is not remotely a problem when times are good, and futures seem bright.  In the bar are Jason’s mom Tracey (played with dynamic emotion by Kittson O’Neill) and Cynthia (played with reason and drive by Kimberly S. Fairbanks).  At the beginning their friendship is rock solid.  They along with Jessie (Suli Holum making the most of a role that may be a little underwritten) celebrate each other’s birthdays here at the neighborhood bar.  The bartender Stan (Rich Hebert played solidly as a human metaphor for the changes being made) represents the past at the steel tubing factory where he worked for 28 years until he was injured on the job.  He reminds us of the union triumphs of the past and remains steadfastly loyal to the company.

The dynamic changes as Cynthia moves from “the floor” to management.  Her reasoned demeanor seems perfect for the job, and although there is an initial jealousy (and suggestions of reverse discrimination) the two friends find a way to coexist.  The company however decides to downsize, and the union calls for a strike.  This destroys their friendship as Tracey feels her friend has betrayed her, and Cynthia can’t understand why her friends do not see that she is trying to help them from the inside.

Two other characters figure into the equation.  Brucie (played with mercurial confusion by Damien J. Wallace.)  He is almost like Cassandra in his foresight (albeit not consciously) into the violence and dehumanization felt by workers who are dismissed without care for their humanity.  The other is Colombian barback Oscar (J. Hernandez an active watcher in the beginning and a symbol of the future.) Hernandez ably represents other minorities caught up in the racial battle ignited by the company and the union.

Justin Emeka’s staff creates the perfect world in which this play comes alive.  Christopher Ash’s scenic design of the “typical” tap room where regulars inhabit is accentuated by his projection designs that help provide a realistic context for this play.  Levonne Lindsay (costumes), Alyssandra Docherty (Lighting), Chris Colucci (sound), Mark Williams (props), and Rick Sordelet (fight direction) have embraced the director’s vision and provided the context for this important play.

Nottage skewers NAFTA, management, and unions equally.  She shows us how the support for a mountebank such as Trump is possible.  Misdirected loyalty and failure to recognize our shortcomings are the fuse to an explosive situation.

Sweat plays until November 4th.  For tickets and information call 215.985.0420 or visit

PTC is back, and I am very glad they are.  The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is such a wonderful venue.  It is a theatrical treasure in Philadelphia’s theatrical universe.

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