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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Lynn Nottage

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800;; $20-$80. Runs through: April 14

Sometimes theater grabs you by the guts, sometimes it sucker-punches you. Sweat does both. The Chicago premiere of this 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is among the very best productions of the 2018-2019 season. It's enthusiastically and convincingly acted by a superb all-Chicago cast, who've honed their rich ensemble skills among Chicago's off-Loop theateres—but it's far more than that.

The play itself is the sucker-punch. Author Lynn Nottage makes the most ordinary blue-collar people not only utterly believable but also special, little-by-little, even though they appear in situations we've seen countless times in plays, movies and on TV: union labor squeezed by management in a crumbling economy. She makes those familiar circumstances both powerful and entirely pertinent to America's present anti-immigration rhetoric, although Sweat takes place in 2000 and, briefly, in 2008.

Nottage has crafted a well-made play, a theatrical technique perfected in the 19th century in which all character points and plot details mesh like cogs in a great machine, playing out to inevitable ends. Like the characters themselves, the audience unknowingly is swept along in the increasingly tense and rapid mechanics. One might not realize it, however, because Nottage's language is so exquisitely plain-spoken and real, although it still has power to entrance. Just listen in Act I to Tracey ( superbly bellicose Kirsten Fitzgerald ) talk about respect for craftsmanship, and how folks used to dress up to shop Downtown. It's a wonderful ride as paced by master director Ron OJ Parson, who extracts a rich vein of comedy as well. Set chiefly in a neighborhood bar near a steel plant, the banter between the regulars is raucously funny ... until it isn't.

Sweat begins shortly after white supremacist Jason ( Mike Cherry ) and newly devout Chris ( Edgar Miguel Sanchez ) are released from prison, then flashes back to show us what happened, involving Chris's unemployed father Brucie ( Andre Teamer beautifully underplaying ), mother Cynthia ( heartfelt Tyla Abercrumbie ) and Cynthia's co-workers/besties Tracey and Jessie ( convincingly inebriated Chaon Cross ). Friendships crumble when Cynthia is promoted to supervisor, followed by union-busting ruthless management actions that affect everyone. Even avuncular, generous bartender Stan ( Keith Kupferer in mostly-cuddly mode ) and uncomplaining, hard-working bar back Oscar ( keenly observant Steve Casillas ) are drawn in.

Nottage didn't set Sweat in Chicago but Kevin Depinet's enormous, untidy and utterly accurate barroom set definitely places it here, trimmed with a dozen Miller Lite banners. Sweat is about here, now and us. Almost tenderly, it also calls up legacy, those who came before us—whether slave or immigrant—and worked for what we have, or think we have. Sweat reminds us that what we have is very fragile—not unlike American democracy—and complicated. Sweat is what theater should be.

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