by Beki Pineda

SWEAT – Written by Lynn Nottage; Directed by Rose Riordan.  Produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company (Presented in the SPACE Theatre, 14th and Curtis, Denver) through May 26.  Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Lynn Nottage has managed to take what happened in one Middle American town’s industrial destabilization and turn it into a microcosm of what is happening all over America to businesses big and small. The rich get richer and the workers get pushed out the door, replaced by machines.  Instead of creating a new leisure class, it creates a deeper level of poverty reaching higher and higher into the middle class. Even cashiers  – which used to be considered a perfect retirement job – are being replaced by checkout machines. The abundance of workers has diminished the bargaining power of the unions. The desperation that comes with losing a long held job and facing a new lifestyle inevitably leads to bitterness and anger.

This is the world we walk into in Ms. Nottage’s current Pulitzer Prize winning drama being performed at the Denver Center. A neighborhood bar run by Stan, an ex-worker sidelined by injury, is the gathering place for the local plant’s workers who celebrate birthdays, engage in flirtations, drink to excess and bitch about working conditions. Black and white together with no distinctions; peaceful camaraderie. Then the layoffs start. A management position becomes available and two of the friends apply for the same job. One gets it; the other goes on strike. The anger and desperation builds from there.

A mystery pervades the script as the first two scenes happen in the future – eight years after the original strike. Two of the characters are being counseled by a parole officer with repeated references to an “it” that happened that resulted in both of them serving time. Then we go back in time to the beginning and learn the story of the strike and its consequences. In the last scene of the play when all the players come back together, one by one they are eliminated as the victim. The mystery is solved only in the last couple of lines of the play.

The cast is uniformly excellent, each embodying their roles with the requisite down home humor, familial fondness, authentic Americana. Timothy Stickney who plays Brucie, a strung out ex-husband, has a determined desperation to him that is painful to watch as he tries to cadge money from everyone that comes into the bar. William Oliver Watkins comes back to the Denver Center to play the hard-ass, no nonsense parole officer whose experience dictates his compassionate but reality driven treatment of his two parolees. Jordan Bellow and Derek Chariton play the brothers from another mother who work side by side in the factory and pursue their separate dreams for the future. A motorcycle for one and a college education for the other. Until the strike hits. The gentle barkeep Stan who has the unique role of both worker who was abandoned by the plant when injured and management in his role at the bar is brought to life by Sam Gregory. Because of his understanding of both roles, he displays unconditional kindness to everyone who enters his establishment, even when they harass his only employee.

That employee is a conscientious worker, Colombian in descent, who looks just enough Hispanic to confuse the denizens of the bar. Gustavo Marquez is a local actor among this talented cast of Broadway and off-Broadway actors who holds his own and becomes the calm in the center of the hurricane of emotion swirling around him. He listens as he performs his duties around the bar, restocking all the supplies, slicing oranges and lemons. But his calmness and reasonableness was in such contrast to the others present, a conflict seemed inevitable. When it came, he did not disappoint. Good job, Gustavo.

The ladies each brought their personal struggles to the attention of the audience. Cycerli Ash is the hard-working hard-talking Cynthia who is placed in the difficult position of trying to hold on to her promotion while understanding the situation that creates for her old friends. Her struggle is made even more impossible by the attitude of Tracey, played by Tara Falk, whose anger turns vicious and more unreasonable the longer the strike goes on. While Tracey is a single mother raising her son alone, Cynthia has to deal with her ex Brucie whose prolonged unemployment has pushed him back into drugs. Leslie Kalarchian as Jessie battles her personal alcoholism and seems to be losing. These are desperately unhappy people who were tipped into despair by the loss of income and purpose. Those among us who are about two paychecks away from the street can relate.

One very slick little theatre magic trick provided a minor mystery never solved: How did one of the parolees who comes out of prison with ugly Nazi prison tats all over his face manage to go back and forth in time from no tats to tats so quickly?? Congrats to the actor and whoever is helping him backstage pull that off. It seemed totally seamless.

The takeaway from this evening? That empathy must prevail. That time can erase old wounds. That friendship and family are more important than trying to stand alone. That doing the right thing is the only thing. Take your pick.

A WOW factor of 8.5!!