Review: "Sweat" at the Mark Taper Forum

 Mary Mara (Tracey) and Portia (Cynthia) in Lynn Nottage's  Sweat , directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Mark Taper Forum. (© Craig Schwartz)

Mary Mara (Tracey) and Portia (Cynthia) in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Mark Taper Forum. (© Craig Schwartz)

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

“SWEATing in My Seat”

It was a homecoming for director Lisa Peterson of The Pulitzer Prize-winning play SWEAT as she watched her nine actors perform on opening night at the Mark Taper Forum. She was once the Resident Director at the Taper for ten years from 1995-2005. A lot has changed in the nation since she was last directing in Los Angeles, making this American drama so compelling and enlightening for the audience.

Playwright Lynn Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. She researched and interviewed workers in one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania to discover what happens to people when the plant their parents worked, they work and now their children work at moves to Mexico.

The set by Christopher Barreca opens in a colorfully lit bar with a neon Stegmaier Beer sign, stools, tables, and a jukebox. Lighting designer Anne Militello quickly darkens the stage as we meet Jason (Will Hochman), a white man sporting a swollen eye and tattoos on his face. Sitting with patient probation officer Evan (Kevin T. Carroll) shortly after being released from prison, he has a chip on his shoulder while trying to figure out how to fit back into the community.

Next Chris (Grantham Coleman), a remorseful black man who doesn't know how to mainstream back into the world either, meets with Evan. He had a bright future to go to college and become a teacher before one fateful evening.

Projection designer Yee Eun Nam clues us into the era by displaying multi-media images enhanced with Sound Designer Paul James Predergast’s music to alert us it’s 2008, and the stock market is deteriorating, and America continues sliding into a recession.

Wondering how their lives went astray, Nottage and the creative team flashback to 2000 when these two were friends working together at their hometown factory with their parents and friends.

The bar is where all the characters meet for drinks, gossip and discuss work. Even though they all have aches and pains, they appreciate their benefits and pension and look forward to retiring.

We watch three co-workers celebrating a birthday at the bar with Stan (Michael O’Keefe) the bartender and Columbian bar helper Oscar (Peter Mendoza). Stan used to work at the plant until he was injured. A stand out performance is by Tracey (Mary Mara) with her gravely, smoker, tough girl dialect, especially in a later scene when her son Jason asks her for money. Tracey along with Cynthia (Portia) and sloppy drunk Jessie (Amy Pietz) have worked at the plant for over 20 years. There has never been an opportunity for any of them to rise off the factory floor into management. When a supervisor leaves, Tracey and Cynthia are being considered for the position to work under “the suits who don’t want to get their diplomas covered in sweat.”

For over two hours, we discover how these flawed characters suffer from a sequence of events starting from January 2000 through September 2000. Friendship, loyalty, fear, racism, and prejudices are heightened as the factory downsizes and demands substantial pay cuts. This leads to strikes, lockouts and the hiring of nonunion workers.

Cynthia’s ex Brucie (John Earl Jelks) performed in the play on Broadway. He is smooth, loud and Chris’s good for nothing father. Cynthia has a lot of moxy facing her circumstances with courage and strength. No one knows what it is like to walk in her shoes, but we learn a little as we watch her sweat, suffer, stand up and fight.

SWEAT is a little too long in some scenes, and I did notice a few audience members leave. However, they missed out on seeing one of the most powerful scenes with a surprising twist. I’m glad I stayed to watch the handsome and likable Oscar rise up and succeed in achieving a happier outcome than the rest.

Guilt and rage don’t destroy these characters, shame does. Without a job, America’s working class loses its identity and turns into drug dependent and often homeless victims from corporate greed and the opiate crises.

The play runs through October 7, 2018. Tickets are available in person, online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, or call Audience Services at (213) 628-2772. Tickets range from $30 – $99 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.