Sweat

Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Donmar Warehouse / directed by Lynette Linton

Seen on January 12, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

One theatrical firework after another: this is how Lynette Linton’s superb production of Sweat lures you into its world of struggle, pain, and redemption. These fireworks—to stretch the metaphor—are all the more impressive for not deafening or blinding one in an over-the-top, self-aware display of virtuosity. All is impeccably balanced here: even the most riotous burst of anger, or the loudest laughter, is strictly sincere. Virtually every single moment, then, has its distinct charm and charge, and what makes this production such a success is its ever-present spirit of moderate dynamism.

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play hardly needs further praise. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat depicts the interconnected lives of a group of factory workers as their bonds of friendship and family are increasingly threatened and ultimately torn apart by economic and social pressures of the early 2000’s. Throughout, it takes a long, hard look at how realities of gender, race, and ethnicity further bedevil an already messy system of industrial oppression and alienation. Deftly locating—and letting us feel—the beating human hearts in a national tragedy, Nottage unleashes the dramatic power of such real-life torments and ends up holding a mirror up to an America haunted by its own hypocrisy.

Lynette Linton’s direction has its own enviable virtues, but her greatest asset is an altogether terrific cast, who are fully at home in the world of the play and under her strategic and lively direction. Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins, and Leanne Best are absolutely stunning as the three women at the centre of the story, and they all breathe near-tangible life into their characters. Plimpton continually sustains the inextinguishable, roaring fire in Tracey; Perkins masterfully vacillates between Cynthia’s self-preserving humour and levelheaded resilience; and Best renders Jessie with nimble but well-defined touches. Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, as the two young men whose appalling crime is the focal point of the play’s dramaturgy, deliver richly textured performances. With everyone at the top of their games, the emerging work feels like a naturalistic, slice-of-life display of a shattering and shattered reality.

Frankie Bradshaw’s humble but efficient design is full of thoughtful and evocative details. George Dennis’s sounds are partially responsible for never allowing the pace of the play to drop. Polly Bennett’s movement direction and Kate Waters’s fight choreography also deserve a hearty applause, in that much of the production’s success stems from the pitch-perfect physicality of the actors, including their flawless blocking.

After the curtain call, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” starts playing in the house. “This is America,” we are warned, “Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Don’t catch you slippin’ up.” America, as a gigantic aggregate of shocking slip-ups, comes fiercely, beautifully alive in this production that never slips up.

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