An excellent cast, a great play and drama that disturbs

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 3/2/23

With an evident sense of mission, theater director Nancy Ridgeway avoids fluffy entertainment in favor of dramas that disturb. 

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An excellent cast, a great play and drama that disturbs


With an evident sense of mission, theater director Nancy Ridgeway avoids fluffy entertainment in favor of dramas that disturb. 

"With every show I do – and I mean every show – I aim to get people talking about what they just saw," Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway’s  latest production at Old Academy Players in East Falls is no exception. “Sweat,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning work by playwright Lynn Nottage,  is a consideration of the effects of de-industrialization that began in the 70s, destroying small towns and affecting every major American city. The action takes place in a bar in Reading Pa., where workers at a steel tubing factory gather after hours. 

The play’s cast of characters are a racially and ethnically diverse mix of men and women, old and young, whose relationships begin to deteriorate when workers succumb to the pressure of a collapsing workplace.

Ridgeway calls the play, which begins its run on March 3, a “great” one, but like every production she argues, picking the right cast is essential or even a great play can devolve into a failed production.

But Ridgeway’s Old Academy Players cast, she says, is exceptional. 

"With some shows getting the actors to penetrate the meaning of the play is like pulling teeth,” Ridgeway said. “My guys here really get it. They are intelligent and spend a lot of time thinking about their characters and how they relate to each other. It has been a joy for me."

Ridgeway’s embrace of the theater was a late-blooming passion. She majored in sociology and political science at Penn State and is now an IT contract negotiator for Broadcom. While she found marriage, family and a professional career rewarding, she also felt there was still something else she was meant to do.

That something else turned out to be theater. She became involved with plays and musicals in her native Doylestown some 20 years ago. At first, she worked backstage learning the nuts and bolts of production - sound and light techniques, stage management and rehearsal protocols. She did a little acting, then discovered her true niche in direction.

She is especially thrilled when people reach out to her with comments and questions about the show they just saw. She expects “Sweat” to stir discussion. 

The characters have the kinds of racial and cultural conflicts that dominate the modern American stage. Playwright Nottage succeeds in using a Reading bar to create a broader socio political context.

I asked Ridgeway if every play she directed was different because of the casting and if she could remember them all. She gave me an excited "yes" to both questions. "I remember every play vividly. Each cast becomes like a little family and I can never forget them."

But I wonder how much of Director Ridgeway's excitement over the cast owes to the play itself. Depression-era playwrights, especially Arthur Miller, succeeded in creating tragic social dramas that seem to naturally grow out of the social order. Deindustrialization, too, has been devastating in its way.

Where are our Arthur Millers today? For the past half-century, we have been content with an American theater (and a national politics) that moralizes about race, sex and gender in a provincial and self-congratulatory way. (For me, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" is the sole, glowing light on this bleak prairie.)

"Sweat" may not be "great," but it nudges our theater in more mature directions. While most plays just peter out, the climax scene in "Sweat" is enormously moving. And I wonder how much of the actors' thoughtfulness owes to their getting the chance to be part of a play that is worth thinking about.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540 Indian Queen Lane. "Sweat" will run through Mar 19. Tickets are available at 215-843-1109.