Arts Club Theatre Sweat

The Arts Club Theatre has brought a timely, powerhouse of a production to Vancouver with Sweat, a story set in the working-class town of Reading, Pennsylvania.

Sweat at The Arts Club

Sweat begins in the future, with a 2008 scene involving a probation officer counselling a couple of recently-released convicts, Jason and Chris. The story then takes a clock-turn back to 2000, as a group of mill workers enjoy a round (or three) of drinks at their local pub.

Bartender Stan (lovingly played by Ashley Wright) has heard it all; both he and his Dad worked at the plant for decades. Following an on-the-job injury, Stan left that scene to open his bar.

Ashley Wright, Nicole St. Martin, Marci T. House, Lora Brovold
[Ashley Wright, Nicole St. Martin, Marci T. House, Lora Brovold]

During its two hour, 25-minute (including intermission) run, Sweat is performed in a series of short scenes, mostly taking place in the bar.

While watching the electoral candidates on the bar’s television, Stan laments, “No matter what lever I pull, it’ll only lead to disappointment”. Sound like the America of today? You betcha.

Sweat is a raw portrayal showcasing the decline of the American working class and the entire cast engage to create a moving, at times comedic, production.

Marci T. House, Ashley Wright
[Marci T. House, Ashley Wright]

Marci T. House (as Cynthia) is a knock-out in this one, having to shoulder the responsibility of being a boss to the very friends she’s worked the floor with for so many years.

Betrayal enters the minds of the workers; in a violent event at the bar following the demise of their jobs (and the hiring of temporary workers at a cheaper rate), we learn how Chris and Jason wind up in prison.

It’s particularly depressing for Chris, who was eager to attend Albright College and had recently been accepted to study there.

Chris W. Cook, Andrew Creightney, Ashley Wright.
[Chris W. Cook, Andrew Creightney, Ashley Wright]

Jason (Chris W. Cook) and Chris (Andrew Creightney) both portray young, emotional men egged on to literally fight for their jobs.

Friendships are strained, egos bruised and tensions mount as the years add up to a dejected set of blue collar workers in a town that few get to escape.

Nicole St. Martin, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez
[Nicole St. Martin, Chris W. Cook, Alen Dominguez]

Nicole St. Martin (as Tracey) puts in a strong performance as a single mother trying to cope with jealousy as she deals with Cynthia’s promotion (both had put their names in the hat for it). Tracey responds by spreading a rumour around the plant that Cynthia only got the promotion because she’s black.

Well-rounded actor Anthony Santiago does double duty as both Evan the parole officer and Cynthia’s at times strung-out husband, Brucie.

Anthony Santiago, Marci T. House
[Anthony Santiago, Marci T. House]

Shizuka Kai’s compact, detail-rich, modular set includes a silhouette of the mill in the background, a constant reminder that there’s not much else to this town.

The workers commiserate with one another about their place within the company – a few even dream of taking a vacation – yet their lives revolve around that mill, making their hardships all the more poignant when they’re locked out due to refusing a new employment package with huge cutbacks in salary and benefits.

Sweat at The Arts Club

Even with a union in place, their jobs (and their pride) suffer during the course of the story. Award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage was influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement as she examined the loss of heavy industry and a changing ethnic composition.

Back in 2011, she interviewed folks from Reading, at the time considered one of the poorest cities in the US.

And think again if you’re convinced that this is only happening south of the border: a recent article on Yahoo Finance points to one in three Canadians losing their jobs in the next 15 years as artificial intelligence and robotics are set to take over their current tasks (according to the McKinsey Global Institute).

Sweat is a co-production between Arts Club Theatre and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, thus half the cast and crew are split between both companies.

In January, the show will move to the Citadel. In closing, I’d like to give a shout-out to Marci, a big proponent of getting this show mounted in Western Canada!

Sweat continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through November 18.

Photos by David Cooper.

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