★★★★★ - Irresistible
A superbly matched assemblage of talent veritably exploded onto the stage at Art Square, as Cockroach Theatre Company gifted us with a richly considered realization of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.
Ms. Nottage’s star just keeps rising, and with Sweat currently being staged all over the country, we Valley denizens are fortunate indeed that these enterprising producers have ensured that Las Vegas got a first rate look at an internationally acclaimed author at the top of her game.
Having done considerable research into the subject matter and location, Nottage sets the story in Reading, Pennsylvania, alternately in 2000 and 2008. The dramatic journey concerns good, hard-working, middle class stock who are challenged by the rapid demise of the manufacturing sector. The rich writing concerns itself with individual identity and community responsibility.
The nuanced, complex character relationships touch on aspects of nationalism, sexism, ageism, entitlement, addiction, class warfare, escapism, and survival-ism all of which vibrate with riveting contemporary resonance. The back and forth time travel frames a cataclysmic, tragic event, but that is not to say there aren’t some solid laughs in the observant script.
The cast could quite simply not be bettered. Maythinee Washington does not so much act the pivotal role of "Cynthia" as inhabit her. As a divorced black mother, Ms. Washington invests the part with grit, pragmatism, assurance, and unrelenting determination to overcome any obstacle in her path. After she is put in an untenable position at the factory where she works, she prowls the stage with a raging intensity that can burst into an agonizing ferocity.
Matching her in demeanor and decibels, Monica Heuser is a dynamo as the bitter, blowsy "Tracey." Ms. Heuser finds a fine balance in the role, making her part hurtful harridan, part hurting homesteader who has to trudge ever onward through tedious factory work to make ends meet. She masterfully underscores the character’s conflicts as she struggles to control her resentments, her feeling of betrayal by friends and institutions, and her love-hate relationship with her adult son.
That son, "Jason," is played with simmering intensity by Ryan Mercier. From the moment we meet him in the show’s opening moments, Mr. Mercier commands our attentive interest with deadpan monosyllabic answers to his parole officer. His taut, coiled spring persona gives the unfolding situation just the right uncomfortable underpinning.
Pictured: Kelly Hawes, Ryan Mercier, Tavius Cortez, and Torrey Russell.
Torrey Russell is commanding as the parole officer, "Evan." Mr. Russell’s modulated queries and ultimatums resonate with tough love and well-calculated authority. His opening scene includes a parole meeting with Cynthia’s adult son "Chris," played with a consummate easy charm by the charismatic Tavius Cortez. His emotional balancing act pays huge dividends as Mr. Cortez tries to honor both his hard-working mother, and his unfortunate, wastrel father. The latter, "Brucie" is given a magnetic traversal by Stuart J. Elzy, who invests this addicted loser with an endearing pathos that, in spite of our revulsion, forgives his pitiable condition and past abusive behavior.
Joe Basso is a near constant presence as "Stan," the bartender in the local watering hole that is the predominant, unifying setting. Mr. Basso is wholly winning as a character who is part advisor, part confessor, part counselor, and all busybody. He is the dominating presence in the social forum that draws all of the factory workers together, a well-intended traffic cop in charge of Dysfunction Junction.
As "Jessie," Kelly Hawes proved a fine theatrical foil to Cynthia and Tracey. We first meet Jessie passed out on a bar table in the wee hours in the bar. While we initially might assume she is an unapologetic drunk, Ms. Hawes has one revelatory scene that deftly, touchingly illuminates many other facets of her life experiences. Richie Villafeurte makes the busboy "Oscar" a force to be reckoned with as he begins with a rather apologetic presence and builds his journey to a surprising outcome that is breath taking in its simple intensity.
Daz Weller has directed the proceedings with his usual aplomb, eliciting honest, evenly matched performances from a team that was operating on all cylinders in full service to this deeply affecting script. Mr. Weller has nurtured beautifully detailed character relationships, created well-motivated movement, and facilitated unforced stage pictures. The well-executed fight choreography was contributed by the Assistant Director Axel Knight.
Alexia Chen’s impressive set design was dominated by the massive bar that is exceptionally well dressed by props master Stacia Zincevich. Ms. Chen finds ingenious ways to suggest the various locales, with a multi-use door stage right, the movement of a few select set pieces, and a black scrim that at first attempts to hide the bar behind it. Amanda Valdez has given us a wondrous lighting design that not only sets the variable beats of this moody piece, but also brilliantly (literally) isolates the action at times to punch up the dramatic impact.
Christine Steele’s costumes are all very well selected, and we can totally believe that real people like these characters actually live their lives in them. Toby Allen is responsible for the seamless sound design that is a sophisticated collage of news bullets and diffuse music. An uncredited make-up artist did yeoman’s work as one character’s look had to change, going back and forth and back and forth and back in time.
In spite of being wholly absorbed, at play’s end I found myself wondering if it might benefit from being five minutes or more shorter. I think that will happen as the run settles in. I wonder if all the set changes (albeit very well done) might be extraneous. There were times the set was literal (the bar, the back alley), but others were just as effective as they merely suggested (the parole room, a street). The choices that were made were well done, but maybe less would have been more. But that is a very minor quibble.
Cockroach Theatre Company’s thought-provoking, heart-tugging, top flight production of Sweat will surely have you laughing, and gasping, and cheering.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with name corrections. Our apologies for any confusion.