‘Caught up in the riptide’: ‘Sweat’ at Linfield Theatre

Lynn Nottage's drama of working-class life is difficult and ambitious -- and Linfield College is putting on a production that leaves the audience gobsmacked

You might be forgiven lowered expectations when a college theater launches a production of a work as ambitious and difficult as Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which opened last week at Linfield College in McMinnville and continues this weekend. Actors lack the experience generally seen on a professional stage; some may not have had theater training beyond the rehearsals. Young people who perhaps haven’t even thought of having children play parents, etc. It’s not ideal.

All that said, Linfield’s Sweat, which I saw on opening night, is a triumph and reminder that local theater can leave you as gobsmacked as anything you might see in Portland or Ashland. After the heartbreaking final scene, there were tears in the audience. During a talkback session, one audience member quietly noted that she couldn’t talk about it; she needed some time. One man said, “I’ve lived that.” I saw the play in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I knew how it ends. And I was gobsmacked all over again.

I found myself sitting almost dead center, next to Ronni LaCroute, whose sponsorship helped make the production — and the hiring of guest director Adleane Hunter — possible. Behind me was Miles Davis, the college’s president. He’d brought with him a young man from McMinnville High School who had, apparently, never seen a play before. I can’t even. Talk about setting the bar high! Who knows what seed that experience planted? All told, it was a memorable evening.

Nicole Tigner (left) plays Jessie and Elise Martin plays Tracey in a scene from Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” which continues its run at Linfield College Theater in McMinnville 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre
Nicole Tigner (left) plays Jessie and Elise Martin plays Tracey in a scene from Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” which continues at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Linfield College Theatre. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre

Sweat opens with two tense exchanges. A parole officer (Linfield junior Robert Santos, lending solid credibility to the play’s smallest role) interviews two parolees: Jason (Sam Hannigan, a junior from Hood River) is an angry young man sporting white supremacist tattoos who seems coiled to strike at any moment, and Chris, a young black man (played by Isaiah Alexander, one of three guest artists featured in the cast) who is more subdued and defeated. We learn that they’ve been in prison several years and recently met for the first time since an incident that got them locked up. Yes, the audience eventually sees what the incident was, and yes, it’s horrible.

We are then brought into the world of Sweat’s bar, and what a magnificent set it is! Designed by Linfield Professor Derek Lane, it is both sprawling and intimate, and cleverly features space on either side for brief action that occurs elsewhere. Several people in the audience marveled, “It looks like a real bar!” It truly does. Linfield’s sets always impress. A few years ago, they did A Doll’s House in a house that rotated, allowing the audience to see Ibsen’s action unfold through the windows and doors. Incredibly, it worked.

Hunter’s granddaughter, Alexandria Hunter, plays Cynthia, a woman who has spent years on the factory floor with her friend Tracey (Elise Martin, a senior theater-arts major from McMinnville). Like most of the cast, they are playing characters a couple of decades older, but are so completely at ease inhabiting the skins of these characters that I soon forgot I was watching students. These are complex characters with a history together, and both women give pitch-perfect performances.

I won’t dissect the plot. Suffice to say, the play is about working people whose lives are bound up with the fate of a factory whose owners don’t give a shit about them. As Stan the bartender, senior Nathan Dillon, a theater arts major from Tualatin, provides a visual reminder of that reality, hobbling around on a bad leg from an injury that put him out of work. “Loyal as hell, I never imagined working anywhere else,” he says. “I get injured. I’m in the hospital for nearly two months. I can’t walk. Can’t feel my toes. Not one of those fuckers called to check on me, to say, ‘I’m sorry for not fixing the machine.’ They knew that machine was trouble.”

Actors cast in the smaller roles are every bit as effective. Guest artist A.J. Saddler is stunning as Brucie, Cynthia’s ex, who staggers in occasionally to ask someone, anyone for money. The part at OSF was played by one of my favorite actors down there, but I have to say I don’t remember his Brucie being as broken as Saddler’s is. It is deeply affecting.

Nicole Tigner, a nursing student appearing in her fifth Linfield production, shines in what is lamentably the more thinly drawn third friend, Jessie, whose life revolves around her next drink. This provides an occasion for a few laughs early on, but for the most part, both she and the script play it straight. In some scenes, she simply sits quietly, staring into space in an alcohol-soaked stupor. Then, Nottage gives Jessie a speech expressing regret at having missed any chance to see other parts of the world. Tigner goes deep, and takes you with her: “I guess I got caught up in the riptide, couldn’t get back to shore.” It’s a poignant moment, and a line that basically describes everybody in the story.

Sam Hannigan as "Jesse" (left), Edgar Lopez as "Oscar" (center), and Isaiah Alexander as "Chris" rehearse a scene from Lynn Nottage's “Sweat,” which opens Thursday at Linfield College in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre.
“It looks like a real bar!” audience members said of the set on opening night. Sam Hannigan as “Jesse” (left), Edgar Lopez as “Oscar” (center), and Isaiah Alexander as “Chris” rehearse “Sweat” prior to its opening last week at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Linfield College Theatre.

Which brings us to Oscar (played by guest artist Edgar Lopez of Portland). He’s of Columbian descent, and Stan’s help in the bar — wiping tables, prying chewed gum loose. He speaks little, but he’s always there, listening. Oscar is the hinge on which the play’s key action pivots. I saw a distasteful remark online (in reference to another production) dismissing the character as a “scab” — ideological labeling that misses the point. This is a deeply humane play. Characters lash out and are at times pitted against each other, but Nottage does not pin any of it on personal flaws. All of these people are trapped in a system they did not choose and do not control, and the choices they make flow organically and necessarily from that.

I found Lopez’s Oscar to be less sympathetic than Carlo Albán’s at OSF, but he is played every bit as effectively and authentically. They all are. As director, Hunter made a point in discussion with me prior to the show that she sympathizes with all the characters — even the openly racist Jason. I do as well.

Does Sweat point to a way out? It’s an intriguing question. Certainly, the play quietly makes a powerful case for compassion. On this point, one should consider the notes (displayed in the lobby, although I wish they’d been included in the program) by Linfield Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner. The playwright’s interest in Sweat, he writes, “is less in judging economic policy than in representing how it feels to build a livelihood in an industry and then have to figure out how to live when your livelihood disappears.” It certainly does that, but I think there are glimmers, too, of broader issues that ought to be tackled more openly.

How to explain, for instance, the fact that several characters who are, in their own way, trying to better their lives express misgivings about telling anyone? Isaiah has pinned his hopes on college, but this information is more or less pried out of him. Why would this be a source of shame or embarrassment? What is it about the system that produces that reaction?

It is easy to conclude that Sweat highlights the importance of voting (I think it was one of the actors who said this during the talkback) but I’m not convinced that’s the clear takeaway, if there even is one in a political sense. Because there’s the little matter of the TV over the bar, showing news clips of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (who pushed through NAFTA). Again, Stan is our Greek chorus: “I watch these politicians talking bullshit and I get no sense that they even know what’s going on beyond the windshield of the cars as they speed past,” he says. “But, I decided a month ago that I’m not voting, cuz no matter what lever I pull it will lead to disappointment.” Is he wrong?

Sweat plays at Linfield one more weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Off the professional circuit, it’s not a play you’re likely to see done often or well. This one is. Take advantage of it.

“Purification,” by Mika Aono (found rusted piece, packing peanuts, plywood). Photo by: David Bates
“Purification,” by Mika Aono (found rusted piece, packing peanuts, plywood). Photo by: David Bates

I WAS SURPRISED THIS FALL to learn that George Fox University in Newberg has not one, but two art galleries. I’ve written here previously about shows in the Minthorne Gallery on the south side of campus closest to downtown, but on the other side, over by the stadium, a visual art space has been incorporated into the Bauman Auditorium. That’s where you’ll find Over and Over by Eugene artist Mika Aono through Dec. 5. The exhibit, according to the press notes, was inspired by the recent death of Aono’s parents and the environmental crisis. “I am fascinated with biological and historical repetitions in life,” Aono writes. “We repeat over and over while standing upon unimaginable layers of narratives.” The installation work, particularly, offers playful lessons on how to use found objects in art and may be seen as part of a global trend in looking at issues of ecology and consumerism in the context of the crisis to which she refers.

ARTS JOURNAL: I reached a major milestone in my ongoing project of hunkering down with “slow cinema.” I finally watched, all the way through, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 psychological sci-fi epic Stalker, which features three men traveling through an isolated rural “Zone” where a mysterious room reportedly grants to those who enter it their deepest desires. It clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes. Difficult, maddening at times, but I finally found myself in a frame of mind where it was rewarding as well. The Criterion Collection edition unfortunately doesn’t include a commentary track, but the accompanying interviews on Disc 2 are interesting.

*

This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.