This review contains mild spoilers.
This is the most beautiful play I’ve seen and I completely understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize. The acting, set design, sound design, and overall directing vision (Ian R. Crawford) were completly on point. This is, without a doubt, my favorite play of 2018. It is bittersweet, daring, and clearly relevant. Too often, blue collar issues are made a caricature, but this was exceptionally crafted by Lynn Nottage.
The play centers on the powderkeg that’s created when a plant closes its doors, leading three friends, Tracey (Jan Rogge), Jessie (Vanessa Davis), and Cynthia (Cecilia Ananya) to fall apart when Cynthia (Ananya) gets a promotion. Chris (Teddy Trice) and Jason (Matthew J. Lindblom) work at the plant like their parents and grandparents have done, even while they watch injuries cripple others, like the barkeep Stan (Greg Butell). Brucie (Lewis J. Morrow) has fallen apart from striking at another plant and losing his identity and livelihood. Oscar (Justin Barron) wants nothing more than to work at the plant and be part of the life that everyone else has. Evan (Keenan Ramos) asks probing questions as the parole officer to try and sort out the lives of Jason and Chris, who we know from the start of the play have done something terrible, and the terrible truth slowly unraveled during the flashbacks and forwards during the work.
This is a play off deep want and belonging, even more than it is a play of work or financial ruin. Every character wants to be at the plant, but once they are locked out of the plant, everyone has a different response. Some turn to violence. Some find other jobs. Some turn to drugs. But there is an overarching sense of unfairness, of being outside, of being out, that you can give your entire life to something but there is absolutely no loyalty or belonging given in return. The Dramaturgy notes (Michelle Tyrene Johnson) give great context for these unequal exchanges. It is more poignant knowing that Lynn Nottage set this work right before 2008, when everything crashed, and many hard working Americans lost their jobs, savings, and livelihood. It is a play for then, and it is a play for now.
Not only is the work and acting beautifully rendered, this is the most technically complicated show I’ve seen in this small of a stage. The set and design team (Gene Friedman/Taylor Jene Sullivan/ScottWilson/Steve Chirpich) crafted a masterpiece as it had to pivot around a bar in Reading, PA – flipping in and out of a parole office and apartments and the outside of the bar. The lighting (Chirpich) had to follow impeccably to light each section properly with various cut aways. Extremely complicated and expertly done. Any design student in the city needs to see the show.
The set and music also helped place us in 2000 and 2008. Ingeniously, sound and video (David Kiehl) leveraged a TV above the bar played snippets of news and sports during scene changes to clue the timeline. The properties (Eric Palmquist) and business on the set worked perfectly to ground the location. The costumes (Arwen White) fit perfectly to indicate the states of mind of the characters and the time period. This expertise was most seen in Brucie (Lewis J. Morrow) and his clothes distressing as his mental and physical state deteriorated.
This was a solid production. It didn’t feel like a play, it felt like I was watching something happen in front of me, it appeared so crisp and effortless. I loved it. Bravo to everyone involved. Thank you for your hard work on this one.
Author’s note: The author does her best to give credit to both actors and technical talent, and #tags everyone listed in the program even if not named in the written play response. If you feel anyone contributed to the production that was not named or tagged, or any corrections, please contact the author via the original source.
All rights reserved – Jessie Salsbury