By Matt and Danielle Salisbury
When the lights come up on “Sweat” at the Gamm Theatre, you get the immediate sense that this is going to be a gritty story as one of the young protagonists speaks with his parole officer. “Sweat” goes on to tell the story of the lives of a group of close friends and families in Reading, Penn., 20 years ago, with the steel industry on the brink of collapse. The ensuing financial consequences for the characters and the effect on their relationships is what animates this engaging story.
The play was written in 2015 by Lynn Nottage and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize that year. It confronts the ruinous effects of de-industrialization on families and communities and how financial ruin augments issues of race and class that divide friendships and families. The story is at once poignant, heartfelt, uplifting, funny and deeply moving. The playwright has great compassion for the characters and we get a chance to be both attracted to and repulsed by each one at turns throughout the show.
Rachel Walshe, the associate artistic director at The Gamm, directed this show with a clear eye for detail. While the pace of the show is solid (neither frenetic nor languid), she has crafted space to allow each character, and the complex web of relationships between the characters, to be clearly understood.
The action mostly takes place in the neighborhood bar, and the set designed by Jessica Hill Kid is a wonderful, stern and realistic representation, even down to the working beer taps which the characters make ample use of during the show.
The ensemble cast shines in this production. The play is written and structured to allow each to be relatable, if not likable, and none of the actors miss their mark in executing that vision, especially Stan the bartender, played by Steve Kidd, whose representation of the physicality of that character was impressive. Kelly Seigh, who plays Jessie (one of the tight group of friends who work at the steel mill, and whose passion for drinking becomes of focus of several scenes in the show) said that the cast spent a great deal of time during rehearsals investigating and creating the relationships that are apparent on stage. We managed to catch a few minutes of conversation with Kelly on our way out of the theater and she said, “The passion from those relationships is what drives the play forward.” The work that they put in is evident from the moment the play starts and the energy persists until the last scene.
We found the occasional voiceover narration in between scene changes to be very helpful in keeping track of the shifts in time between 2000 and 2008. Like many of the plays we have seen at the Gamm, this is another that beckons us to use the historical experiences of the characters as a lens through which we can view and try to understand current events. Where were we at that time? How could we have been so unaware of this reality? It felt both distant yet relatable.
“Sweat” runs from now through Nov. 27 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd in Warwick. Tickets can be purchased at gammtheatre.org/sweat, or by calling (401) 723-4266.
Matt and Danielle Salisbury love theater and live in East Greenwich.