Metro Weekly Review: SWEAT

Anchored by terrific lead performances, Keegan Theatre's 'Sweat' turns up the heat in a drama roiled by race and class division.

Women bear a heavy burden for keeping the faith and the peace in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama Sweat, staged to duly tense effect by Angelisa Gillyard at Keegan Theatre.

Friends Tracey (Susan Marie Rhea) and Cynthia (Lolita Marie), coworkers for decades at a steel plant in Reading, Pennsylvania, are breadwinners for their families — wives and mothers who pull their weight on the line, and at home. Yet, for all their diligence and dedication, they can’t be responsible for a husband’s addictions or a son’s violent impulses. They can only live with the sometimes devastating consequences of their men’s actions.

Also, their friendship is tested in ways that add even greater complexity to these roles for performers Rhea and Marie, who acquit themselves brilliantly as Tracey and Cyn, often forming a fabulous trio with Santina Maiolatesi, as Jessie, the pair’s gin-soaked bar buddy and coworker. Those bonds are tested, too, when Cyn and Tracey are pitted against one another for a possible promotion to management.

Sweat captures this precise cultural moment not only in dialogue referencing NAFTA and Bush v. Gore, but with its noticeably social media-free depiction of a world where fast-evolving technology threatens to leave laborers languishing behind.

In the face of so much struggle, the ladies and their crew just want a drink sometimes — a reality warmly reflected in Matthew J. Keenan’s bar set where the majority of the play takes place. A watering hole for locals, with a jukebox to one side and an American flag hanging on the other, the bar evokes the sense of community these characters cling to, the place they go to feed their joy and to soothe their sense of powerlessness.

The entire ensemble … serves the story effectively … But it’s really the women who carry the show. The unspoken distance between actor and character diminishes sharply watching Marie’s careful, contained Cyn, and it vanishes entirely watching Rhea tear shit up as blowzy, boozy Tracey, the sort who starts a conversation with “I’m not prejudiced but…” — a phrase that never ends well for anyone speaking it.