Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Bloomsday
The bulk of the play covers the threatened shutdown of a steel tubing factory, and the increasingly frantic rural families who've eked out a living from it since the 1920s. And instead of pure procedural, we hopscotch back and forth from year to year at the beginning of the 21st century. Through it all, the great "whooshing" you'll hearas Ross Perot said way back in 1992is the sound of jobs flying down to Mexico, after NAFTA.
Great elegance goes into her storytelling, as Nottage gives us startling flash-forwards and poetic, narrative retrogrades under the flawless direction of Black Rep founder Ron Himes. You may never get invited to an actual anti-NAFTA march or see a telethon to save rural America from the ravages of drug abuse and decline. But you can march in to see this two and a half hour long play and bear witness to the rich, complex portrayals of all of that.
The eventual plant closing coincides with the 2008 economic collapse, creating its own slippery chaos. In that micro-depression, the two families at the center of Sweat (one black and one white) must cling to their more stable memories of growing up in a good old American factory town. Though, on some level, that only makes things worse, and they seem to understand that their future, at the hands of the rich and the mighty, is inevitably monstrous: plunging one family into a primeval explosion as everything goes to hell, all for the sake of shareholder value. Other countries grapple with the problem of cheap foreign labor. But has any of them ever made such a terrible Hobson's choice?
Fiery Amy Loui and lovable Velma Austin are the matriarchs of the white and black families, co-workers who drink together at night at Stan's Bar (Stan is played by stoic, and later monstrous, Blake Anthony Edwards). And their struggle against closing the factory becomes personal when Cynthia (Ms. Austin) is promoted to management. Her estranged husband is played with terrific artistry and aplomb by A.C. Smith, and both women have sons who likewise rely on the mill, Jason (complex and fearsome Franklin Killian) and Chris (gentle and perfectly paced Brian McKinley). Each of them has hopes and dreams but, scene by scene, the flint seems to get farther away from the match.
Gregory Almanza is noble and naturalistic as Oscar, who gradually emerges as central to the story. And Kelly Howe provides comic relief as a barfly at Stan's, while managing her own plausibility every stumbling step of the way. So many threads are subtly woven together and so many elements of character are gently inserted that the great conflict at the end, and the denouement, become unavoidably cataclysmic.
It is a devastating play that confirms our worst fears about the failings of the American way of life, and the hostile takeover of our democracy. It may be the most important play of the 21st century.
There is a COVID-19 questionnaire to fill out before the show, in your ticket confirmation or in the lobby, and masks and distancing are required.
Sweat runs through September 26, 2021, at the Edison Theatre in the Mallinckrodt Center at Washington University (along Forsyth Blvd., between Big Bend and Skinker Boulevards), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Denotes Member, SDC, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Members of Actors' Equity Association