Who: Theatre Aquarius
Where: 190 King William Street
When: January 29 – February 15, 2020
Tickets: starting at $30
More Information or To Buy Tickets: https://tickets.theatreaquarius.org/TheatreManager/1/login&Event=1073
In a city like Hamilton, where generations of families worked in a specific industry, only to have the presumed certainty and security of working in these roles crumble practically overnight, playwright Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Sweat is a stark reminder that many will be able to relate to. Theatre Aquarius was smart to program this production in its mainstage season, even if it isn’t the crowd-pleaser that its primary audience may be accustomed to.
To write the play, Nottage undertook extensive research. She spent two years visiting the post-industrial city of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Sweat is set. The result is a two-hour long production that tells the story of nine characters in two separate years- 2000 and 2008. The contrast is stark; in 2000, the town is entirely dependent on the steel industry, and a mentality exists that nothing will change. By 2008, the year of the economic downturn, devastating change has impacted each character. Surtitle projections break apart the scenes with news events to demonstrate the passing of time. Through these vignettes (one per month for the year 2000), Sweat ultimately tells the story of the actions and consequences that has led each character down their respective path by the year 2008.
The local bar is the primary location where many of these scenes take place, and set designer Doug Paraschuk has crafted a masterpiece in his structures of a bar and its outside, cleverly situated on a revolve. Care and effort was taken to ensure that the music, set pieces, décor and costuming were all true to the time of the production; however, an eagle-eyed patron noted to me an incorrectly dated hockey logo on a costume piece to me, and a few pieces of technology that came into being after the time of the show. While this is a tiny thing to note, when so much effort is clearly being put into every element of the set and costume design to be true to the time, it is disappointing to see that certain details may have been overlooked.
No local bar would be complete without its reliable bartender, and Stan (played spectacularly by Randy Hughson) strikes an excellent balance between philosophical musings and practical mediator as conflict continues to emerge, resulting in loyalties between friends and coworkers being torn apart and divided. Survival instincts create race issues that hadn’t previously been an issue, fueled when Stan’s assistant in the bar, Oscar (René Escobar Jr.), whose family is from Columbia, chooses to cross the picket line in the hopes of a better life. Escobar is purposely underutilized throughout the show, but his constant presence serves as a reminder of an increasing desperate need and economic gap.
The cast is well assembled, and while a few are noted in this review, rest assured that each does an incredible job with their respective characters. Each personality in the production is given the opportunity to elaborate on their personal histories, their families, employers and community. However, director Ron Ulrich rushes through the first half of the play, and as a result, these often potentially emotional monologues provided context, but no real connection. Several opportunities for a joke to lighten the mood or build a relationship between characters are glossed over and fall flat. As a result, when tensions started to rise during the production, moments that should have been emotionally intense sometimes felt uncalled for, or unexpected, rather than within the natural course of the character’s development. In the few scenes where characters were able to more fully explore their roles, rather than rush through the script (a poignant scene outside the bar between Laurie Paton and Escobar was particularly well done), the emotional conflict portrayed was heartbreaking and haunting.
The pacing of the production seemed to rectify itself in the second half; however, because much of the emotional infrastructure had not been thoroughly laid, the emotions that boil over in the play’s penultimate scene do not match the emotional tension that should exist in that moment.
There are many parallels that exist between the Reading, Pennsylvania of Sweat and the Hamilton, Ontario of today. Much of the tension between old and new, legacy and opportunity, and even the increase of white supremacy that this city has seen as of late, can be traced throughout the script. It is not hard to imagine that Reading could be- or isn’t far- from Hamilton.
The production is full of disturbing truths and important messages that is necessary for this city to heed. In the closing moments of the production, Nottage’s script gives a tentative and final underlying of humanity that leaves the audience with a glimmer of hope of how we can endure and survive together. Hamilton would be wise to heed the call of hope.