[Playwright Lynn] Nottage offers as real a look at blue-collar America as any play in recent times. She in fact spent two years traveling to Reading, PA in order to understand what life was truly like in a place, which, at the time, had been listed among the poorest cities in America. Her firsthand research certainly paid off. In Keegan’s capable hands, Sweat gets a captivating new life here in the DC area.
The play is set mainly in 2000 and takes place almost exclusively in the local bar. This bar is as much home to these characters as the factory. Set designer Matthew J. Keenan does an incredible job in tandem with lighting designer Alberto Segarra of creating that “lived-in,” townie tavern feel as the set itself becomes a veritable character in this production.
The Keegan Theatre isn’t trying to reinvent Nottage’s now iconic play, they are simply trying to remain true to what is at its core. They succeed in doing just that by giving audiences a gritty, honest, no-holds-barred portrayal of lives caught in a current from which they cannot escape, even though they’re swimming like hell to try and get to the shore. Keegan’s production represents that deeply provocative nexus where the sheer talent of the actors meets a richly done theatrical experience resulting in an explosive piece of performance art.
For their part, some of the actors seem to have taken a cue from Nottage inasmuch as they wholly come to embody the mannerisms and spirit of the factory workers they portray. At the center of this world-coming-undone moment is Cynthia. Lolita Marie’s challenge here is to give us a woman who at once cares about the welfare of her friends but at the same time, instinctively realizes she must look out for herself. Her new position at the factory is indeed polarizing to say the least. Lolita Marie pulls it off and then some. Her internal tug-of-war is riveting to watch, and her eventual isolation so tragic to behold.
Susan Marie Rhea also gives the audience a healthy dose of tragic. Her metamorphosis from the loud, garrulous life of the party into a bitter, angry, and eventually drug-addled woman is a truly convincing one. Much of the blue-collar mindset of the play hinges around Rhea’s performance, and she consequently gives this mindset a life and dimensionality of its own. As Cynthia’s son Chris, a young man with aspirations larger than can be fed by a factory life, Jamil Joseph puts his heart out there for all to read. It is an earnest and soulful performance.
As an ensemble, this cast just works. It becomes all too easy to read them as friends (and sometimes enemies) who’ve lived and worked together for years.
Angelisa Gillyard’s direction is a study in how naturalism can be done while still not losing the theatricality of the piece. In other words, we are in that bar looking in on these people’s lives, respecting the nuances of those lives. Yet, we also appreciate the wonderfully dramatic moments that can only be found in live theatre. Augmented by set design, lighting, Ian Vespermann’s sound design, and Johnna Presby’s well-thought-out costume choices, Gillyard’s vision for Nottage’s award-winning script results in a socially conscious and compelling night of theatre.