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review

Sweat, a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, is now having its Toronto premiere at Canadian Stage.JOHN LAUENER

  • Title: Sweat
  • Written by: Lynn Nottage
  • Director: David Storch
  • Actors: Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Kelli Fox, Timothy Dowley-Coltman, Christopher Allen
  • Company: Canadian Stage and Studio 180
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Feb. 2

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

How did America get to where it is today?

Sweat, a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, now having its Toronto premiere at Canadian Stage, looks back at a U.S. factory town in a swing state in the year 2000, a not-so-distant past where the forces of deindustrialization are tearing families and friends apart and reopening racial divides.

Although set amid the divisive, hanging-chad election that first brought George W. Bush to power, Nottage’s deeply researched union drama arrived on Broadway in 2017, shortly after the divisive, lock-her-up election that brought U.S. President Donald Trump to power.

There it was seen as a kind of theatrical companion to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, explaining, with empathy, the roots of the appeal of Trumpism to the white working class.

Alas, in its Toronto debut from Canadian Stage and Studio 180, something’s been lost in the outsourcing. Director David Storch’s production is awkwardly staged – and dragged down by performances he’s let get way too big for the 244-seat Berkeley Street Theatre.

Sweat is explicitly structured as a what-happened mystery, beginning with a pair of scenes set in 2008.

Chris (Christopher Allen), an African-American man of deep Christian faith, and Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman), a white man with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, meet with their parole officer separately – and discuss how they ran into each other on the streets of Reading, Penn., earlier that day and hugged.

How are these two seemingly polar opposite men connected? And why were they in prison?

Nottage flashes back to 2000, where the focus shifts to the fortysomething mothers of these two men.

Sweat is explicitly structured as a what-happened mystery, beginning with a pair of scenes set in 2008.JOHN LAUENER/Canadian Stage

Cynthia (Ordena Stephens-Thompson), an African-American woman separated from Chris’s addicted and locked-out father, and Tracey (Kelli Fox), a white widow raising Jason on her own, are lifelong friends who work at a nearby steel mill.

After shifts, they hang out a bar managed by Stan (a sweet Ron Lea), who left the factory after an injury and is always there to lend a sympathetic ear (or perhaps a hand on a thigh).

In the background, Oscar (the excellent Jhonattan Ardila), a Colombian-American busser, is always walking around, wiping down tables or removing gum from underneath them, a reminder of who is doing the low-paid, non-unionized work others won’t in this town.

When a management position opens up for a worker on the factory floor, both Cynthia and Tracey apply – and depending on how you view it, a chasm either opens up between them or is revealed. It grows as their employer surreptitiously ships off equipment and jobs to Mexico.

You may excuse Tracey’s “political incorrectness” at the start of the play because of her being played by the likeable actress Fox. But soon enough, economic anxiety brings the character’s darkness closer to the surface as she wonders aloud whether her friend got promoted because management wanted “a minority” – and misdirects her anger to local Hispanic men and women working as “scabs.”

Stephens-Thompson and Fox both give solid performances that root the play in reality, but Storch and his designers have not created a convincing working-class world around them. The bar, for instance, is always empty and eerily quiet, even in a scene where Stan says, “Business is booming.” The lighting and sound design that might make it feel packed are all saved for the overly mediatized scene changes.

Set designer Ken Mackenzie has definitely built a good-looking fictional drinking establishment that blends in with the real windows and brick that make up the Berkeley Street Theatre. (The theatre is, itself, a deindustrialized space.) But the well-stocked bar hogs too much of the stage, pushing the actors mainly into a constricted sliver of stage – or onto chairs and tables that are placed too close to the audience.

The result: Actors regularly disappear from view when they sit down or congregate in highly unnatural lines facing out from the bar.

Perhaps this design debacle would irritate less if more actors were giving authentically working-class performances. But from the moment Dowler-Coltman’s Jason takes the stage, it’s clear this talented young actor has been abandoned by his director; he’s so far over the top, he’s in a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.

Allen is more persuasive as Jason’s friend Chris at times, but he still is instructed or allowed to shout speeches just a couple of feet away from patrons. Almost all the performers have moments of acting to be “drunk” or “high” that are so over-physicalized they seem like comic shtick – and the brief moments where they sing and dance never seem natural.

The appeal of Sweat is that Nottage – the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice – did the work to tell this story, making many trips to Reading over 2½ years to interview people there. It’s not a documentary play, but can almost feel like one.

Nottage has said in interviews that her motto while writing was “replace judgment with curiosity.” Here, because of mostly tone-deaf direction, that curiosity looks instead like condescension.

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