Work: Love it or loathe it, it determines everything about you. It affects where you live, what you drive, how you dress, the hours you keep, how you shop, who shares your life, whether you rent or own, your taxes (yes, it’s that time of year), your environment … and the list goes on.
Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is about work. The peculiar title suggests physical labor—a fact that’s confirmed when you find out that the setting is the steel town of Reading, Penn.
The author, Lynn Nottage, won her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this script (the only woman to win two!). The play’s great director/producer, Michael Shaw, told me that Ms. Nottage spent five years researching what happened to these hardworking folks caught in the ghastly triangle of struggle between The Union, The Management, and The Workers of the plant which employs them. Yet her script contains a few welcome laughs along with the gritty realism of words like scab and lockout.
The scenes bounce back and forth between the years 2000 and 2008. A fascinating addition to the onstage action: news headlines appearing on the proscenium between the scenes, including the temperature that day in Reading—and these headlines rocket us back to the names and events of those days. The play begins in 2008, then flashes back to 2000, but the changes in the time are handled beautifully by the cast of nine.
The main set is a neighborhood saloon. Created by the amazing Thomas L. Valach, who has given us so many fabulous and varied play designs, it is the quintessential cozy bar—and Shaw confided that it is a functional one, too! Watch the bartender! The stage is expanded when the actors chase down the aisles, and later, an extra hidden set pops out, too, courtesy of the show’s most excellent lighting by Phil Murphy. Kudos to all the techs who contributed their brilliance to the success of this play, all aided by Shaw’s flawlessly balanced blocking. Terrific work, all.
Conflict begins with the play’s first words. This solid cast of actors, some whom Shaw has imported, have all done their backstory research, so we meet fully realized characters. These people take pride in working with their hands and in being multi-generation factory workers. This is a life so far removed from our sunshiny world in the Coachella Valley that it’s spellbinding. This play’s dark atmosphere implies the gloom and grime of the steel mill where these people toil, but the neighborhood bar is a familiar haven that promises light, music, warmth and relaxation. Alas, it is also the setting for gossip, heartache, blame, jealousy, frustration, injustice, revenge and eventual violence.
Let’s look at the actors in alphabetical order, like your program does. Miguel Arballo plays Oscar, a Puerto Rican barback with ambition. A lot goes on behind his watchful eyes. He eavesdrops on the customers whom he resents because they ignore him—though he learns from them. Arballo brings multiple layers to his creation of Oscar, and he surprises us with this character’s growth.
Melanie Blue plays Jessie, a brunette who frequently finds herself “over-served” at the bar. This fearless actress uses her expressive face and subtle gestures to build a character in whom we see opposing thoughts existing together inside her head … except, of course, when she is passed out.
Desireé Clarke is Cynthia, a smart girl whose intelligence is layered with sweetness. She is keen to advance at work, yet is highly sensitive to injustice, favoritism and the feelings of others. This actress, as always, turns in a beautifully focused, believable and thoughtful performance.
The role of Tracey is played by Theresa Jewett—an assertive single mom, worried sick about her job, finances and her tattooed son. “I was never any good in school,” she says, dismissing the possibilities of union retraining. Alarmingly, we see her spiral downward faster than anyone else once their plant locks them out. Yet Jewett’s strong character never indulges in self-pity.
Cortez Johnson plays Chris, Cynthia’s son, a young man determined to free himself from the factory’s problems by pursing a teaching degree. He skillfully creates a complex role layered with a wide variety of emotions as he deals with his parents, his choices, his mistakes, his joys, his fears and anger.
Corydon Melgoza is Jason, Tracey’s son (and his tattoos actually play a role, too—watch them). When we first meet him, he is a sullen young felon, but when we next see him, it’s eight years earlier, when he was a high-energy boy with exuberant hopes. In Jason, Melgoza has carefully created a multifaceted character who runs the gamut of emotions.
Eddie Stephens opens the show with his character, Evan, an authority figure who is a parole officer or counselor for Jason. Interesting to watch, this actor chooses to play his part largely with downturned eyes—an amazing choice which works for him, though it is rarely seen onstage. Brave and unusual!
Cary Thompson plays Brucie, a character who can break your heart. His relationships are always subject to his con-man habits and a firm belief that everyone is a sucker. Thompson shrewdly layers this over a thin film of desperation, then tops it with an irresistibly sweet smile, creating a character that we both love and hate.
Mike Truelock is the bartender, Stan, who gives his role a greater arc than any other character in this play. “Shaken, not stirred,” he smiles to Jessie, handing her a martini like 007. The affable, philosophical former factory worker presents as a charming and friendly guy, which is why his story is such a shock. Truelock is unforgettable in this deceptively simple role.
Some performances are already sold out, but see Sweat if you can. Believe me: After what happens in Sweat, you will leave the theater shaken AND stirred.
Dezart Performs’ production of Sweat is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.