It’s surprising more stage dramas aren’t set in the workplace, given that (like it or not) we spend so much of our lives there, and given that (wittingly or not) we derive so much of the meaning of our lives from our jobs.
In “Clyde’s,” playwright Lynn Nottage takes full advantage of those facts, then heightens the stakes by adding a twist.
Under the sharply focused direction of Taylor Reynolds, the superb production of “Clyde’s” at the Huntington Theatre reminds us of the skills that have earned Nottage two Pulitzer Prizes.
She is uncommonly deft at handling tonal shifts, one of the most challenging aspects of playwriting. Nottage transitions in “Clyde’s" from comic to wrenching to lyrical and back again, all without allowing the play’s structure to collapse from within.
In the creation of character, Nottage is no less adept. The people with whom she populates her plays almost invariably feel real, often stuck in a precarious position and struggling to maintain their balance.
A co-production by The Huntington and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, “Clyde’s” takes place entirely in the kitchen of a truck stop café in Berks County, Pa. The four employees who spend their days preparing sandwiches under the withering supervision of the café's owner, Clyde (April Nixon), have all done time in prison. None of them wants to return there.
Dismal though their working conditions are, the job represents not just a means to survive — though it’s definitely that — but also a fresh start and, potentially, a larger sense of purpose for Letitia (Cyndii Johnson), Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams), and gray eminence/guru Montrellous (Harold Surratt).
Montellous has been on a mission to make the perfect sandwich, and pretty soon the others join that quest. They recite ingredients with a kind radiant wonder, as if they were stanzas of poetry. As if that elusive sandwich might possess a talismanic power, enabling them to transcend their circumstances.
But Clyde seems determined to crush their spirits, whether barking sandwich orders through the window or sweeping imperiously through the kitchen, wearing a different outfit and hairstyle nearly every time she appears. (Major kudos to costume designer Karen Perry, and also to hair, wig, and makeup designer Megan Ellis.) Clyde is a fount of free-floating malice, constantly raining down abuse on their heads (”You’re all losers,” she tells them), secure in the knowledge that she has her employees over a barrel. “Ain’t nobody going to hire us, and she knows it,” observes Letitia.
But the seeds of rebellion are taking root in that kitchen (persuasively detailed by set designer Wilson Chin, with punchy sound design by Aubrey Dube). Will they eventually take a stand against Clyde, which would in effect be a stand for themselves? If so, what form will it take?
While we wait to find out, the cast of “Clyde’s" delivers performances that manage to be strongly individuated while also meshing smoothly into a cohesive group portrait.
Nixon summons the force-of-nature power required to make Clyde a majestically imposing figure — the café owner carries herself like a full-fledged diva looking for a stage and an audience — while making clear that Clyde has suffered a few hard knocks herself.
As Montrellous, Surratt projects the serenity and sagacity of a man who has seen and lived a lot, whose inner resources consequently run deep, and who has survived worse things than a verbally abusive boss.
In the initially sullen Jason, who was also a character in Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning “Sweat,” McWilliams has a difficult role to play. He’s covered in white supremacist tattoos (he tells his Black co-workers in “Clyde’s” that joining a gang and getting the tattoos was a matter of survival in prison). Bit by bit, though, McWilliams convinces us that Jason is indeed trying to become a better person.
Johnson’s Letitia is outwardly the picture of boisterous self-possession and confidence, but the actress also drives home the toll taken on Letitia by the load she is carrying, as the mother of a disabled daughter. (Letitia was imprisoned for breaking into a pharmacy and stealing medicine for her child.)
As Rafael, Guimarães is poignant in his courtship of Letitia and in his bewilderment at the circumstances he finds himself in. Like his co-workers, he is no longer in prison, but not quite free, either. “How the [expletive] did we get stuck here?” he asks at one point.
Getting unstuck will require the four of them to gain a vision of what their lives could be, and then acting in concert together — not unlike that perfect sandwich.
Play by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Taylor Reynolds. Co-production by The Huntington and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. At Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Tickets $25-$135. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.