Two big productions on now paint two American portraits, intimate and recognizable, in details both banal and destabilizing. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat runs through Sunday at ACT Theatre; and the world-premiere musical Afterwords runs through Saturday at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
ACT Theatre: Sweat
A couple of minutes and your whole life changes. That’s it. Gone.
It’s nice that you take care of him.
That’s how it ought to be.
The very last moment of Sweat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 play by Lynn Nottage, is quietly devastating. Over the two-plus hours leading up to it, this play is all about the loud, from drunken friends and jukeboxes to picket lines, arguments, and assertions of entitlements that are generations in the making.
Under the boom of fireworks celebrating America, some long-tenured union workers find themselves shut out. They’ve poured their sweat into a town’s heavy industry — so ingrained it might as well be a company town — which in turn put money in their paychecks, security in their pensions, and lifeblood in the blue-collar bar they all head to after clocking out.
They’ve been on the line before, but this time no strike will get back their benefits. They’re loathe to admit that the trades and management in companies they’ve given 30-plus years of their life and labor to don’t have the same kind of loyalty.
And now it’s time to find someone to blame.
When Lynn Nottage set about writing Sweat, she was challenged to think about the pivotal moments in American history — and, despite its recency, decided on what she calls the “de-industrial” revolution, wagering that its impacts on the busted steel and textile town of Redding, PA, would say much about the country as a whole.
As she listened to the disillusionment, the anger, the sense of betrayal and lack of direction among the older White people who suddenly found themselves out of work, she was surprised at the level of empathy she felt with those who she had “always thought were on the other side of the divide.” It was the interviews and research she conducted in Reading that formed the basis of Sweat; and the play’s success suggests she was exactly right to imagine the stories she found there would resonate widely. The story Nottage weaves pokes at virtually every sore spot in a country that seems desperate to keep those ailments open and multiplying.
But the people at the heart of Sweat aren’t “political”. They’re hard workers, beholden to the status quo — the industry and job security of their ancestors — but holding out hope for just a little bit better. And that’s where everything falls apart. Tensions fly as old friends vie for the same position, both eager to get into a desk job to give their joints a little rest. Addiction both separates, as when a mother kicks out her drug-using husband, and unites, as bonds are held together by passing days and hard-drinking nights at the watering hole. Company management, meanwhile, is determined to weaken those bonds, the trust between the longest-tenured workers, and their bargaining power.
In ACT’s production, Nottage’s careful story construction, deft direction from John Langs, and an excellent cast are all aligned here. Some clever bits of humor and hope keep all the weightiness of the play’s themes from growing too heavy; it’d be worth seeing just for Allgood’s drunk-dancing in a dive bar and Hughes matching Cher’s warbling along to “Believe”. They get plenty of support from a strong cast, including Sara Waisanen (new to ACT’s stage and a great fun to watch), and Shawn Belyea (a theatre veteran but one I hadn’t seen on stage as much as behind the scenes), who excels as a wise and weathered bartender just trying to keep the peace along with his livelihood and at least some sense of moral high-road.
As nice as it’d be to sort out the enemies — and the drama boils over among just about all of them at one point or another — Sweat doesn’t give in that easy. It peels back the problems and shows the humans underneath.
This is ACT getting back to what it does best — the very best in contemporary works, and an exceptional piece of theatre.
Sweat runs through 5/22 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $27-$69, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; there is one gender-neutral, single-stall restroom on the 2nd floor, near the elevator; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible; ASL-interpreted performance on 5/19. Financial accessibility note: Pay-what-you-choose rush tickets are offered at the Sunday night (closing) performance; see info here.
The 5th Avenue Theatre: Afterwords
This is a story about stories.
If you ask each of the key characters in Afterwords — and there are a lot of them — what this show is about, they’re likely to each give you a different answer. And they wouldn’t be wrong. While the title implies it’s about the aftershocks of some cataclysmic event or events, it’s much more about the lead-ups to them.
Three 20-somethings (two of them sisters) are all grieving in very different ways from the sudden loss of family members. All of them find ways to blame themselves. All end up finding interconnections between their stories. One of them knows the truth from the start, but the rest of them tend to find out these connections about the same time as we do. That hopping around from year to year, past to different past to present, can get a little hard to follow.
But what makes this original musical special is the clarity with which it depicts some forms of mental illness and addiction — with their empowering highs and treacherous lows — on both their hosts and those closest to them. Mari Nelson is a special actor anyway, but here she’s able to step into that rare role that’s demanding from all sorts of directions: big vocals, an intimate story on a giant stage, and a character who’s effortlessly creative, committed, unreliable, a sucker for love, an untrusting and protective mama bear, and anything else she needs as a single mother and service industry employee trying to keep the family above water. Nelson’s Lydia is one with grit and softness. Her character is likable, lovable, admirable, and not to be trusted.
At least it’s that mix at the best of times. Lydia doesn’t get a diagnosis on stage, but her illness is depicted as minimally controlled bipolar disorder, magnified by severe alcoholism. Her daughters, keepers of her secrets, need her as a caretaker (and, often, a creative muse), but just as often step in to be hers. When they fail, they bear the consequences; often, she eludes them.
The second major story thread, involving two wartime journalists, gets a little too long and convoluted, but its tie-ins to the other characters are mostly satisfying ones. And actor Anastacia McCleskey, already a veteran of Broadway runs, made it hard to bemoan any sluggishness of that story line. McCleskey’s voice is downright energizing.
Eliza Palasz understudies for both of the sisters (somehow) and stepped into the role of Kali, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter daughter, for opening night. Her performance was spot-on and prepared; a big hat tip to the power of an excellent understudy.
The set design (by Carey Wong) and lighting design (Robert J. Aguilar) added elements of mystery and intrigue to the whole thing. Dominating the set is a big, storied house that felt every bit both an anchor and a drag, packed to the gills with stuff reminding the daughters of their past with little room to grow out from under it. (It was also stuffed with endless shelves of well-ordered books, which made this book nerd happy and McCleskey’s character less so; “That’s some Beauty and the Beast shit!”)
Some production aspects were weird — particularly a recurring song (“Lonely-Hearted People”) that starts off an appealingly small and smart folksy-pop song and turns into a stadium jam crawling with gyrating Miley Cyrus-style dancers. I guess that’s where we’re supposed to buy that she’s a big pop star by plugging her truth into a remix machine, a la Cora in Music & Lyrics. It didn’t work for that butchered Alex and Sophie number in the movie, and it didn’t work here.
Maybe those bits will get smoothed over. But even with the occasional blip, writers Emily Kaczmarek (book) and Zoe Sarnak (music and lyrics) and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt have a special show here — a musical that’s thoughtfully crafted, enjoyable to hear (most of the tracks could fit easily into pop rock and pop country station lineups), and largely easy to cheer for, even as it hits plenty of sad notes.
In family drama and romance and intrigue, Afterwords is Lifetime meets musical — and it works.
Afterwords runs through 5/21 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $89-$179, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: If you would benefit from low-cost tickets to this show, please email NWTheatre (contact info here) with “Afterwords” in the subject line.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.