You are here
Home > Arts > REVIEW: Visceral <em>Sweat</em> Keeps Hitting (Guthrie Theater)

REVIEW: Visceral Sweat Keeps Hitting (Guthrie Theater)

The calm before the storm in Sweat by Lynn Nottage, now playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. L-R: Lynnette R. Freeman (Cynthia), Terry Hempleman (Stan), Amy Staats (Jessie), Noah Plomgren (Jason), and Terry Bell (Chris). Photo by Dan Norman.

Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, is far from a light entertainment. It is visceral, raw, and often unrelenting. If you want to leave the theater feeling lighter than you entered, this is not the show for you. If you want to leave the theater feeling that you’ve been on a journey, however, this play and its production have that in spades.

The general backdrop of Sweat is the hollowing out of American industry in the Rust Belt after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which greatly facilitated American companies shifting production to Mexico. As demonstrated in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, NAFTA remains controversial to this day, but is absolutely despised if you live in a community that lost its linchpin employer(s) to subsequent offshoring. Nottage conducted extensive interviews with some of these communities, distilling many events and characters into the narrative of Sweat.

What price dignity? Rock bottom may seem very low until you start digging deeper. Brucie (Ansa Akyea, right) makes a plea for money to his son Chris (Terry Bell, center) as a friend (Jason, played by Noah Plomgren, left) looks on. Photo by Dan Norman.

As you might expect, losing your lifelong employer alongside all your friends does not go down well, and is unlikely to have a happily-ever-after ending. To arrive at something other than a steep decline into depression, Sweat is told in a non-linear fashion, interweaving past and present. From this emerge several through-lines: addiction, trailing criminal histories, professional jealousy, and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations.

Perhaps the most engrossing part of Sweat is watching how those who begin close together are broken apart by events that are both their own fault and that go far beyond them. There are childhood friends Chris (Terry Bell) and Jason (Noah Plomgren); adult coworkers and friends Cynthia (Lynnette R. Freeman) and Tracey (Mary Bacon); Cynthia and her husband Brucie (Ansa Akyea), who is struggling with substance abuse after an early round of offshoring; and more. Freeman and Bacon’s performances are by far the most interesting to watch, as their career arcs diverge and then plunge them into an impossible situation.

A happier moment joins Chris (Terry Bell), Stan (Terry Hempleman), and Jason (Noah Plomgren). Photo by Dan Norman.

The strength and weakness of the script and production is that every onstage event seems heavily charged. As Cynthia, Freeman delivers passionate plea after passionate plea when things start to fall apart: pleading for patience, pleading innocence, pleading for forgiveness, and pleading for reunion. There are many pleas, including those by other characters, starting from the very first scene. Payoff is delayed until the final scene, when we see where all the hints and glimpses teased at the opening have led, when a few quiet moments featuring Terry Hempleman’s performance as Stan break your heart.

Sweat is not for those who wish to be light-hearted afterwards – but this production directed by Tamilla Woodard is an engrossing and emotionally sweeping piece of theatre, well-acted, and delivered.

Sweat runs through August 21 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine