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The working class goes up in flames in Sweat

Gustavo Marquez, Sam Gregory, and Tara Falk in Sweat.
Photo courtesy of Adan Lundeen for DCPA

Play explores 2008 financial crisis

Tracy (Tara Falk) has been working at Olstead’s only a few years more than Cynthia (Cycerli Ash), but that has never hindered the fact that the two of them, along with co-worker Jessie (Leslie Kalarchian), are inseparable. They spend their afterhours at Mike’s Tavern, where Stan (Sam Gregory), a retired Olstead’s worker, pours the drinks and Oscar (Gustavo Márquez), a young Latino man, sweeps the floors. Tracy and Cynthia’s sons, Chris (Jordan Bellow) and Jordan (Derek Chariton), drop by regularly to have drinks of their own, sometimes running into Chris’ drug addict father, Brucie (Timothy D. Stickney). While the clock ticks closer to 2008, tensions rise as members of Olstead’s are laid off, but the workers’ rights and unions provide no help at all. 

Sweat tackles the immense examination of working-class America in the early 2000s. Though never offering any real answers, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is littered with questions about the productiveness of unionization, the generational effects of small-town life, and how far the compassion of others goes.

Nottage’s script benefits from an occasionally non-linear structure that shows the evolution of characters affected by the 2008 recession. Instead of merely letting her characters’ stories unfold, Nottage starts at the end, showing the difficult place where two of them find themselves. As the play progresses, the audience is periodically thrown into the present, revealing more Reading, Pennsyvania residents’ outcomes, with each conclusion beginning to feel more like fate. Sweat unfolds like a tragedy more than anything else. It’s about miserable people leading miserable lives without knowing it, then suddenly being forced to face the music. Things, as expected, do not end pretty. Still, it’s almost as if Nottage is suggesting that Sweat is an inevitability caused by ignorance, bigotry, greed, and forces outside the characters’ control.

Kalarchian gives one of Sweat’s most heartbreaking turns as Leslie. Her drunken stupor, where the audience finds her in the opening scene, allows her to hide on the sidelines with little of the action happening to, or because of, her. Then, she unexpectedly delivers a truly demoralizing monologue about the passing of time as she celebrates her birthday alone. Kalarchian’s is the kind of acting that sneaks up on unsuspecting audience members, creeping its way into their subconscious by virtue of effortlessly turning comedy into heartache and vice versa—all while balancing the in-your-face lead performances of Falk and Ash.

The set and lighting that create Mike’s Tavern, designed by Tony Clsek and Charles MacLeod respectively, feel so incredibly real and rich with detail that it’s easy to get lost in the collection of metal signage adorning the walls of the Space Theater. Here the lighting helps tell the story rather than just complement it. The year of every scene is projected onto a table top and a clinical-looking florescent fixture descends from the ceiling for police office interrogation scenes. MacLeod’s design helps a few unassuming tables and chairs scream in agony against the horrors committed around them. The addition of a few simple jarred candles toward the play’s conclusion make Mike’s Tavern feel like an entirely new locale. There is no shortage of stage design and visual storytelling here.

Extremely topical and unwavering in its approach to delicate subjects, the Denver Center’s production of Sweat should not be missed.


Space Theater
Playing through May 26

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