The Smooth Workings of the Unicorn’s ‘Sweat’

(Front) Cecilia Ananya, Vanessa A. Davis, and Jan Rogge (Back) Greg Butell and Lewis J. Morrow. Photo: Cynthia Levin

Sweat, the title of the play running at the Unicorn Theatre through Nov. 11, refers to “sweat equity,” which is a way of increasing the value of something by putting in physical work. Playwright Lynn Nottage took this idea and turned it into a multi-layered examination of labor and human nature.

This play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, is mostly set in a neighborhood bar in a factory town in 2000, as the North American Free Trade Agreement began to take effect and U.S. companies started moving their operations to Mexico. The plot revolves around a small multi-generational group of family and friends who use the bar as a place to unwind after getting off work at a steel-pipe factory.

The play has multiple plotlines that interweave and collide with each other. However, they all have one thing in common: The amount of work that the characters put into the factory is not paying off the way they expected it would. So, they each build up anger and resentment as they realize they will not achieve the American Dream.

This is an interesting and absorbing play, but it isn’t very happy. The stories slowly grind you down as you see the light dimming in everybody’s eyes. You really understand how factory towns can dry up and lifelong employees can lose their jobs in between leaving work one evening and going back the next morning.

Of the nine cast members, most have their own character arcs. It’s a great ensemble, and the actors really mesh well together. There are no weak links in the performances.

One of the most interesting characters is Jason, played with a ferocious intensity by Matthew L. Lindblom. Jason goes from an optimistic employee to an embittered young man who takes out his frustrations in the way that many angry young men do. Lindblom’s portrayal of Jason is one of the single best performances I’ve seen in a long time. He’s electric and commands the stage. In the play, Jason mentions that he’s doing what he needs to be doing. I’m not sure about Jason, but Lindblom sure is.

The other most interesting character arc is that of Cynthia, played terrifically by Cecilia Ananya. She goes from floor worker to management, and then to social exile, and Ananya handles those transitions in a natural and empathetic way. No matter her circumstances, Ananya keeps us focused on her character’s essential humanity.

Although the technical aspects of plays don’t often get mentioned much in reviews, I have to point out the excellence in the set, costumes and makeup here. The bar looks like one I used to go to in college. The costumes took me out of Kansas City and into a small working-class factory town. And the makeup work skillfully runs the gamut from executive boardroom to injuries from a fight, and right down to a homeless drug addict.

This is one of those productions where everything weaves together so well that you are totally taken into the story. It is not funny or exciting or suspenseful. But the drama is so realistic that you may forget that it’s technically fiction.

If you go

For tickets, go to www.unicorntheatre.org, call 816-531-7529, or go to the Unicorn Theatre box office at 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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