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Review

‘Sweat’ chronicles the personal lives of striking union workers

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You know that bar. The ramshackle one across the street from the steel mill or the cork factory. Maybe a few letters out on the blinking neon sign. Everyone there knows your name, but this two-and-a-half-hour play sure ain’t “Cheers.”

Riverwalk Theater’s production of Lynne Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat” takes place in that bar. The blue-collar, after-work hang-out for residents of Reading, (pronounced Redding), Pennsylvania, is the heart of the great recession.

Director George Popovich visited Reading to absorb the ambience of Mike’s Bar, which inspired the play’s setting. Emily Willemese’s set design replicates much of what Popovich saw. The  only thing missing is the beer smell.

Popovich assembled an ensemble of nine actors to enact the consequences of union strikers and resistant corporate managers to come to terms with recession and international warfare from 2000 to 2008.

Scott Pohl is bartender-owner Stan, a Vietnam vet disabled from his factory job. Stan is the glue that holds this out-of-work community together, but just barely. Pohl is outstandingly grounded and steady-as-you go in this role, as he comforts and confronts the varying complaints and outrage of his customers.

Chief among equals in this group of beautiful underdogs are two middle-aged women — one white, one black. Maureen Sawdon is Tracy and Rose Jangmi Cooper is Cynthia. Sworn to be best friends forever, their friendship is torn to shreds when Cynthia is elevated to a managerial position.

Sawdon as Tracy is all grit in this role, unrelentingly determined not to be destroyed by circumstances outside her control.

Cooper as Cynthia is conflicted, not wanting to lose a friendship, but tired after years of standing and working 10-hour shifts.

When the plant owners offer a down-sized plan that will save jobs, but require cuts in pay, Cynthia gets caught in the middle of pleasing her best friend and a desire to hold on to what works for her.

Anger and outrage explode, as these two characters shout and curse each other out as only factory workers can — more fuck words in a single sentence than seemed possible.

Another relationship at the brink of combustion is between Jason and Chris, the young adult sons of Tracy and Rose who also work in the factory.

Matthew Kowalcyzk is notable as play's fight director.  He orchestrates a bar melee that involves all the characters.

Connor Kelly as Jason brings a bristling physicality to his role, that eventually comes to a boil in the bar, where he assaults Oscar, played by Edward Heldt, resulting in serious prison time. Oscar is a stock boy at the bar, and crosses the union picket line as a scab non-union worker. 

Lekeathon Wilson, as Chris, is caught up in the fight and also ends up in prison.   

Julian Van Dyke does double duty, as a stalwart no-nonsense parole officer and the falling-down drunk husband of Cynthia. 

Nottage’s script attempts to tag on something of a redemptive moment at the end of the play.

Alas, nothing can mitigate the overall despair of these characters, trapped in the truth of their culture during the diffuse of economic crisis.

“Sweat”

Thursday, Oct. 10, Sunday, Oct. 13, Various run times

$17 adults, $14 Senior/student/military

Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Drive

(517) 482-5700, www.riverwalktheatre.com

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