As the Santa Fe Playhouse embarks on its 101st season of programming, it chose wisely to included the powerful and devastating production of Sweat in the initial lineup. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage opened May 11 in a local production that lives up to the acclaim it has earned on other stages.
The play itself was first performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 before landing on Broadway in 2017; it won its Pulitzer for drama that same year and picked up several Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations to boot. Additionally, publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker lauded the production for its nuanced portrayal of working class people, race relations and the 2008 economic crisis.
In Santa Fe, Sweat becomes a true tour de force for the Playhouse company with director Robyn Rikoon assembling a stellar cast and guiding them through the piece’s development. The actors perform their characters in two time periods: 2000 and 2008. The story centers around a group of factory workers, their families and friends as they face the ramifications of a shifting economy, both in their professional and personal lives. Relationships splinter as the stakes get higher, ending in a devastating sequence that leaves audience members—as with good productions of Romeo and Juliet—able to see the trajectory and fervently wishing for a different outcome.
Central to the plot are the relationships between two sets of friends: Tracey (depicted in a powerhouse performance by Kate Udall) and Cynthia (played by regular Playhouse and Theater Grottesco favorite Danielle Louise Reddick) and their respective sons Chris (a grounded and nuanced Joshua Caleb Horton) and Jason (played as a powder keg often on the verge of explosion by newcomer Danny Martha). All four work at the nameless factory, though Chris aspires to escape that world and become a teacher.
Tensions further rise when management seeks a worker from the line to join their white collar ranks and both Tracey and Cynthia apply; things only escalate when a busboy of Colombian descent, Oscar (played by Juan-Andres Apodaca, who returns to the Playhouse after appearing in The Effect last season), shares information leading to the discovery that the powers that be are preparing to cut costs in ways that directly harm the long-term workers. As the conflict comes to a head, race relations already bubbling beneath surface become overtly difficult, leading to broken friendships and violence as the characters simply fight to survive. Consistently strong, multifaceted performances round out the cast with Freddie Lee Bennett as gruff parole officer Evan; Karen Gruber Ryan as Tracey and Cynthia’s barfly friend, Jessie; Scott Harrison as barkeep Stan; and James J. Johnson as Brucie, Cynthia’s troubled husband.
Clocking in at about two and a half hours with one 10-minute intermission, Rikoon’s take on Sweat runs quite a bit longer than many of the productions mounted by the Playhouse in recent seasons. Adding to the already intense endurance challenge, the actors depict their characters within the two disparate time periods with very little onstage turnaround—and while eight years might not seem like a long time, the audience slowly learns how those eight years were particularly difficult for these characters.
The execution of the technical design helps viewers understand the fluctuations of the setting, as well. Scenic designer James W. Johnson triumphs with an incredibly detailed and highly realistic bar set that makes fantastic use of the Playhouse’s small stage. It absolutely looks like a place any patron would be glad to stop in and grab a pint; a functioning beer tap and jukebox further the effect beautifully—and speaking of the jukebox, sound design from Patrick Janssen is immensely effective as well. Jared Roberts’ lighting design sings, too, with most of the play taking place at the bar, but a few notable scenes meant to exist elsewhere. The specificity of Roberts’ lighting creates clear distinctions to support the setting changes and storytelling. Costume designer Erica Frank returns to the Playhouse with expert costume design that made this writer (a person who graduated high school in 2008) slightly uncomfortable to realize Sweat is technically a period piece. Frank’s work captures the clothing styles of 2000 and 2008 effectively, as does video design from Freedom Hopkins, whose contributions do a lot of work to ground the piece in its distinctive time periods while providing cues and easy points of access for audience members.
While entertaining and engaging, Sweat presents challenges that can feel all too real, especially for those who have lived experience with the economic tumult of the early-to-mid-aughts. Some of the experiences and ramifications of the period remain present today across a wide gamut of arenas, not least of which, the economic and interpersonal. Though many elements of the production are difficult to watch, Nottage’s piece is an important one to absorb, to ponder and to sit with. The Playhouse makes it work.
Sweat: 7:30 pm Thursday, May 18-Saturday, May 20; 2 pm Saturday May, 20 and Sunday, May 21. $15-$75. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E Devargas St., (505) 988-4262