Sweat Packs a Punch at RLTP

In Buffalo, we know what it’s like to live in a factory town. In some families, working at the plant is part of your legacy. Maybe it’s your father or uncle who put in the word that got you that job, just as his uncle or father did for him. You expect the security of having a job in a place that holds meaning. You grew up with that comfortable wage and a security blanket of benefits. A different job would be out of the ordinary, unfamiliar, maybe not in step with your family and friends. Also in Buffalo, we know what it’s like when the factories start shutting down and those good old reliable jobs go away.

That’s at the core of Sweat, the Pulitzer Award winning and Tony nominated play by Lynn Nottage, on stage now at Road Less Traveled Theater.

It’s fierce, it’s powerful, it’s emotionally draining and at almost three hours long, it’s fanny fatiguing, too.

It’s also a reminder that the human condition is resilient but also frail when threatened, and that when your work and your life are tightly woven together, any change is devastating on both the personal and professional levels.

This isn’t theatre for the faint of heart: this gritty production is reminiscent of the best days of the Subversive Theatre Collective, with its deep roots in labor and social justice storytelling.

Sweat is the story of a trio of friends – Tracey (Lisa Vitrano), Cynthia (Davida Tolbert), and Jessie (Diane DiBernardo) – and the close friends-as-family bond they formed after years of working together, celebrating birthday, nursing hangovers, and supporting each other through personal ups and downs. Tracey and Cynthia have another bond: their sons Jason (Johnny Barden) and Chris (Jake Hayes) are also pals who work together.  They all hang at Howard’s Tavern where Stan (David Mitchell) tends bar and Oscar (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) does the cleaning up. All is well, until plant management opens a new position to someone from the floor and Cynthia earns the gig (she needs it; husband Brucie is out of work and battling some personal demons). All the while, the plant is also cutting back, moving machines out of the plant in secrecy, and the workforce walks out on strike. There’s tension. There’s solidarity. There are handouts that feel more gratuitous than supportive. And then quiet Oscar takes a non-union job and he’s no longer the almost invisible presence in the background at the bar.

Director Victoria Perez and her perfectly-cast players gave this piece a very sharp edge. Characters are transformed in the 2000 (when times are good) to 2008 (oh what a difference eight years can make) time hop. (Confused? The TV screen at the bar flashes the dates, and the characters’ demeanor and clothing and makeup changes are exquisitely subtle.) Gina Boccolucci’s bar room set is cozily seedy in the best ways. Other scenes happen downstage under tight, bright spotlight. (Confused? Watch the neon Budweiser sign at the bar. When it’s on, you’re there). Nicholas Quinn gives us some dead-on sound cues, too, as music helps fill the passage of time. I love these small details best. So well executed and evocative, just like Diane Almeter Jones’ props; every item is there for a reason. When Stan makes his point by pounding on the bar, butts pop from the ashtrays. And then Adriano Gatto choreographed a bar brawl so vivid, so raw that yes, I had one hand over my eyes. Seriously. This was the moment that changed lives forever.

Every member of this cast was rock solid, and it was Mitchell who really stands out. To say why here would be too much of a spoiler, but damn, his character’s evolution was breathtaking. Other characters grew and changed, too, but anger and struggling for peace are expected in the human condition. Stan, however, has unique challenges and Mitchell nails this brilliantly.

Admittedly, there are some hard to see moments here, and the play ran really long (theater companion and I agreed, easily 30 to 45 minutes could have been excised without sacrificing the power of this plot. Playwright Nottage’s Pulitzer win and Tony nod were both well and hard earned. Perez’s direction, the cast, and the crew live up to this story and then some.

Sweat is onstage until May 21. It runs a little over 2:30 with one intermission. Tickets and details at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.