Washington City Paper Review: SWEAT

Keegan’s SWEAT Finds Good Work in the Quiet Moments

As season finishers go, you can do a lot worse than Sweat, which won Lynn Nottage a second Pulitzer Prize in 2017; in the years since, several of her works have received artful and affecting productions in the D.C. area. Keegan Theatre’s intimate venue is a suitable, if snug, match for a play that dissects how economic pressures can crack even the strongest social bonds.

Like Clyde’s, one of Nottage’s two other plays set in post-industrial Reading, Sweat thrives on a consummate sense of place, and the Keegan production largely delivers on that front. The bar is evocatively designed by Matthew J. Keenan and dressed by Cindy Landrum Jacobs, both of whom show a keen eye for the tacky but charming paraphernalia of a local watering hole. … Johnna Presby’s costumes are functional but dotted with just the required flourishes: Jessie’s ridiculous birthday dress, for example, or Cynthia’s sleek suit, which she sports following a pivotal offstage development.

For a play with such a tempestuous undercurrent, the standouts in Keegan’s largely able cast excel in the quiet moments. Jamil Joseph provides a steady emotional backbeat as the good-natured but misguided Chris and the cast as a whole traces the contours of Nottage’s characters effectively, but it’s when the principals go against the grain that the depth of the play really comes into view. Susan Marie Rhea and Lolita Marie make a compelling pair as the battle-hardened Tracey and the proud Cynthia, yet they both show a soft edge at the right time — Rhea when recounting Tracey’s childhood memories of Reading’s old downtown and Marie when melting in the face of Brucie’s well-worn smooth talk. It’s a counterpoint to the play’s many drunken exchanges, some mirthful and some vicious, many of which are played by all the bar’s denizens with a grandiosity that verges on silly. Still, even Santina Maiolatesi’s Jessie, the character most given to comic intoxication, movingly reminisces about the youthful travel plans that were dashed by the need for regular work.

These sorts of delicate touches are vital when producing a play as dexterous in its examination of human desire, anxiety, and prejudice, all of which are keenly observed against the devastation of organized industrial labor in the once thriving Rust Belt. Nottage has a gift for sowing sympathy even for the likes of Jason, whose racism shows up well before his Aryan ink, and for drawing characters like Brucie, who could so easily be the caricature of a strung-out deadbeat, with clarity and sensitivity. While Keegan’s production sometimes plays it a bit broad, it’s the detail in setting and care in those reflective, contrarian glimpses that make this production a capable addition to the slate of recent Nottage showcases.