Who would think that Oedipus, after gouging out his own eyes because he recognized his wrongs, took the easy way out?
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, that's who.
In her 2015 drama "Sweat," which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, blindness to the effects of one's misdeeds is not an option. Eight years after they were involved in a tussle that went awfully awry, former best friends Jason and Chris return separately to the site of the brawl and are left speechless when they see the disfigurement their split-second actions wrought.
The scene, silent but powerful, pulsates with heartbreak. It puts an emotional capstone on a play that gives voice to some of the aches and frustrations that animate a nation unmoored by job displacement, thwarted dreams and self-medication.
"Sweat" toggles between 2000 and 2008 and is set mostly in and around a bar in Reading, Pa., a union and company town where the union is losing its grip and the company is leaving town. Those impending losses supercharge toxins that are already in the environment. Residents are infected with jealousy and rage on the one hand, and drugs and despair on the other, and they're hungry for scapegoats. They turn on one another and, ultimately, their own selves, even if they don't see it that way.
Nottage's writing is highly refined and director Tamilla Woodard meets that brilliance with her taut staging. True, there were a couple of moments of odd timing at Friday's performance of "Sweat," but chalk those up to opening-night jitters.
As the play starts, a metallic industrial-style curtain that also suggests a cage opens to reveal the bar tended by Stan (Terry Hempleman). The scenes are framed by video projections that display headlines, stock market quotes and updates on the respective presidential elections (Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams did the scenic design and Katherine Freer the projections).
That spareness on the one hand and digital layering on the other gives a sense of the simple and complex dichotomies that the characters negotiate. The cast includes best friends Cynthia (Lynnette R. Freeman) and Tracey (Mary Bacon), whose bonds are tested after they both go up for a supervisor's job. Their sons, Chris (Terry Bell) and Jason (Noah Plomgren), are supposed to represent the future.
Also in the mix is Brucie (Ansa Akyea), Cynthia's husband and Chris' father who has addiction challenges; steady barback Oscar (Antonio Rios-Luna), an overlooked Latino worker who nurtures his own dreams; unflappable parole officer Evan (Darius Dotch); and Jessie (Amy Staats), a heavy drinker whose husband left her for a younger woman.
There is not a wanting performance in the bunch, with Bell and Plomgren bringing orneriness and twitchy muscle to their respective hotheaded young men. Both also show flashes of vulnerability as they orbit each other like sparring partners, caught, as they are, in a fate not always of their choosing.
When we first meet Cynthia and Tracey, they are twirling at the bar, and Freeman and Bacon similarly perform like dance partners, with strong chemistry. As their characters become short with each other, these two pros play the conflict with aplomb, showing not just the ire under their eyes but also the anguish.
Akyea, best known for magisterial, hefty roles, delivers a performance of tremulousness and vulnerability. The same is true of Hempleman, whose Stan is a community treasure and whose turn near the end is beautifully affecting.
Staats' Jessie functions mostly as comic relief, nodding to the fact that although "Sweat" has a strain of tragedy, the drama is leavened with droll laughs.
It is said that after Tiresias, another figure of the ancient world, was blinded by Athena, she gave him not physical sight but the ability to see the future. Fortunately for us — and as "Sweat" makes clear — Nottage's sight and foresight are both intact. And though what she shows us in the play is clear, the ending is not always foretold.
These Americans, even in brokenness and struggle, can still write a different outcome.
Who: By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Tamilla Woodard.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 21.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $20-$80. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.
Protocol: Masks required.