Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Menopause the Musical
San Diego Repertory Theatre's production features a strong cast to tell a story that's as depressing as it is revealing and insightful. Audiences see the different events and situations that can turn normally likable characters into people who are full of anger and hatred, with a lack of tolerance for others. An introduction begins in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2008, where two ex-consJason (Steve Froehlich), who is white and sports white supremacist tattoos, and Chris (Cortez Johnson), who is blackare trying to readjust to society after being released from jail. The plot soon jumps back to 2000, in a Pennsylvania bar where Jason and Chris are more carefree, as well as close friends. At the bar, two women who are just as close, the white Tracey (Judy Bauerlein) and the black Cynthia (Monique Gaffney) are applying for a management job at a local plant where they already are employees. When Cynthia gets the job, Tracey becomes resentful and a rift grows between them.
Nottage's script focuses on the lives of five people, and each of them gets a decent amount of stage time. Although the two groups of friends drive a lot of the action onstage, the character featured the most is the bartender Stan (Jason Heil, who took over for Jeffrey Jones in an early performance), arguably the most moral and sympathetic person at the bar. Nottage balances these characters with other fascinating people who have ties with them, such as Oscar (Markuz Rodriguez), a Hispanic barback getting fed up with the lack of respect shown to him, and Jessie (Hannah Logan), a divorced co-worker of Tracey and Cynthia's, who is beginning to have some personal regrets. There is humor in Nottage's writing that helps theatregoers enjoy the conversations and behavior of the different Reading characters, even while the tension builds. The only flaw with the script is that there are scenes in each act that end on a similar note. Several sequences in act one finish with a person saying something in a very angry manner, while some scenes early on in act two conclude with different people asking a question. As a result, certain parts of the play tend to feel a bit repetitive. In looking at the big picture, however, that complaint is a mostly minor one, as the narrative keeps the audience invested in the dark events at the bar.
Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse works with talented performers who show the different sides of the characters they play. Bauerlein and Gaffney realistically depict how the bond between Tracey and Cynthia strains and breaks, and there's a sense of dread watching Froehlich and Johnson in the 2000 scenes, as we are aware of Jason and Chris' future fates. At the performance I saw, Heil was full of warmth and shared strong stage chemistry with everyone around him. Stan is featured in some of the most impactful moments of the entire piece, and Heil rose to the occasion with an excellent performance. The supporting cast, including Logan, Rodriguez, Antonio T.J. Johnson and Matt Orduna, add dimension to their parts, and it's a testament to their performances that audience members are left wanting to know more about the people they play.
Woodhouse's direction emphasizes both big and small moments in the script, and he is as invested in an intimate speech as he is with Nottage's social commentary about the working class, race and politics. His sometimes understated approach makes the more dramatic parts of the production somewhat shocking and discomfiting. The work of the crewmembers contributes to the mood, and they include set designer John Iacovelli, who makes the bar feel like a place that can be both fun and emotionally draining, and sound designer Matthew Lescault-Wood. Audio from Lescault-Wood uses songs such as OutKast's "Ms. Jackson" and Bruce Springsteen's "Downbound Train" in ways that contribute to the moody tone of the piece. Samantha Rojales' projections also serve to explain some important 2000 U.S. events, which is effective since this is a very American story.
Sweat is a tough night of theatre that rewards audiences with a tale that becomes deeper as it reaches its conclusion. Woodhouse's direction and the work from the cast result in a first-rate presentation of Nottage's acclaimed drama.
Sweat through May 12, 2019, at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego CA. Performances are Performs Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at www.sdrep.org or by phone at 619-544-1000.