Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year, and the current production at Capital Stage is as good a staging of the play as I can imagine one could see. Directed by Michael Stevenson, the company’s producing artistic director, the nine-character, two-act play is a powerful drama that was especially compelling theater on the weekend before this week’s mid-term elections. Several of Ms. Nottage’s characters (who are portrayed in scenes that take place, alternately, in 2000 and 2008) would clearly become the Trump voters of 2016. For that reason alone, the play merits attention.
One of Ms. Nottage’s many effective devices in the play is the way she slowly reveals the interconnections of the characters who congregate at the bar where most of the action takes place. It’s a neighborhood bar that offers refuge for the workers at the local plant at the end of another difficult work day. These are company people, people whose fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, worked on the same floor with the same conditions many years before. And the bar has been their shelter, where their friendships are formed and where they bond over mutually shared grievances about work conditions, low pay, and the lack of upward mobility.
But the play opens in a police station office where a parole officer is alternately interviewing two parolees, young men who have only recently been released from prison. One is white, the other black, and it soon becomes apparent that they have a history, perhaps even including why they were in jail in the first place.
The white one is angry, agitated, maybe even scared. He doesn’t want to talk to the man who could take away his freedom by writing up a bad report. His black counterpart is more sanguine, perhaps, but he, too, is unsettled. Both finally reveal that they have run into each other in the small town where they both grew up as close friends.
Later, we meet their mothers and the father of one of them. The parents are also workers at the plant. The mothers and another woman are fast friends who occasionally drink too much, even to the point of upsetting the bar’s manager/bartender, who is also a former worker at the plant (until he got his leg mangled in an industrial accident).
They talk about the plant reverentially, and they talk about the bosses at the plant with disdain. They expect the company to take care of them, as it took care of their parents and grandparents, but they fear the rumors about layoffs and automation and maybe even moving the entire company to Mexico. A threatened strike turns into a lockout when the union refuses to accept a pay cut and a loss of benefits. Nerves are frayed when one of them gets a promotion to a management position.
Meanwhile, life at the bar goes on. Birthdays are celebrated. The promotion is, at first, applauded. But as the lockout continues and the union’s assistance and unemployment benefits shrink, friendships are threatened and the hope for better times loses its luster.
I can’t say enough about this great play and the wonderful production that Mr. Stevenson and his cast are presenting. The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Standouts to me are Michael J. Asberry as the young black convict’s father, Tarig Elsiddig and the always terrific Ian Hopps as the black and white young men, respectively, and Kathryn Smith-McGlynn and Amy Resnick at their mothers. And Matt K. Miller deserves most honorable mention for a wonderfully understated performance as the manager/bartender. Rounding out the cast, and by no means less noteworthy for their performances, are Kelley Ogden, Evan Lucero, and James R. Ellison III.
The production is also enhanced by the set and lighting (designed by Timothy McNamara, the costumes (designed by Gail Russell) and the sound and music (designed by the always reliable Ed Lee). The TV set in the bar is used to flash excerpts from the news of the day before each scene. Some of the news flashes are painful reminders of the hard times that were hitting towns like the one in Pennsylvania (outside of Philadelphia) where the story takes place.
“Sweat” is a great play. It’s an especially great play for this time in our nation’s history, and the Capital Stage production is as hard-hitting and authentic as the script and the times demand. See it and ponder its message. And maybe just sweat a little as you do.
Across town from the Capital Stage production, the Sacramento Theater Company opened its production of “Steel Magnolias” this past weekend. And as good as the acting is in “Sweat,” the acting in this Casey McClellan-directed play might be even better. The play is based on a true story from playwright Robert Harling’s own life. It premiered Off-Broadway in 1987. A film version, with screenplay by Mr. Harling, won Julia Roberts a best supporting actress Oscar nomination in 1989.
The STC production is staged in the smaller Pollock Theater at the theater complex near the Wells Fargo Pavilion (home of Sacramento’s Music Circus). The intimacy of the smaller theater adds to the personal connection that develops over the course of the play’s two acts as the six female characters are introduced and their friendships are revealed. And, while the play is definitely one that elicits tears, many of those tears will result from uproarious laughter, as these six women are a collective hoot.
The action all takes place at the local hair salon, where Truvy curls, coifs and styles the women’s hair into whatever their moods and the events of the day may require. And it is while those stylings are taking place that the friends gossip and poke good-natured fun at each other. These are real people, small-town Louisiana style.
One is the widow of the town’s former mayor. Another is the wife of a bird-hating hunter (at least bird-hating on the day of his daughter’s wedding in their backyard). A third is the litigious neighbor of that couple, who claims the tree that houses those birds is on her property, not theirs. And then there is the mother of the bride-to-be, who quarrels with her daughter about everything concerning the wedding while she tries to keep peace between her quarrelsome friends. Truvy’s recently hired assistant, a newcomer to the town, rounds out the group.
“Magnolias” is a fine play, albeit it never achieved great success on Broadway (it closed there after only a modest run in 2005). But what makes this production so special is the acting by the six women who make up the cast. They are led by the incomparable Jamie Jones as M’Lynn, the mother of the bride. Ms. Jones has a pivotal scene in the second act that makes or breaks the play, and she delivers it so powerfully (mixing the anger and the pain of life’s inherent injustice into palpable emotion) that it left this grown man in tears (along with most of the rest of the opening night audience).
But “Magnolias” is very much an ensemble effort, and none of the six stars miss a beat in their respective performances. Janis Stevens as the mayor’s wife, Natasha Haase as Truvy, Carissa Meagher as the bride/daughter, Janet Motenko as the litigious neighbor, and Kayla K. Johnston as Truvy’s assistant are all great, each embodying the role with such ease as to make one think they all grew up in small-town Louisiana themselves. (None of them did.)
The production also benefits from a set designed by Tim McNamara, lighting by Isaiah Leeper, sound design by William Myers and costumes by Jessica Minnihan.
“Steel Magnolias” is light and fun and poignant and beautiful. Like all great theater, this production is enthralling. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and you’ll love these wonderful women.
Performances of “Sweat” continue at Capital Stage through November 18. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org). Performances of “Steel Magnolias” continue at STC through December 9. Tickets and information are available at the box office (1419 H Street), by phone (916-443-6722) or online (sactheatre.org).