At ‘Clyde’s,’ some fresh ingredients and a fresh start

Harold Surratt as Montrellous and April Nixon as Clyde in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.” Photo by Kevin Berne, Berkeley Rep

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – Sometimes all you want is a sandwich.

But not just any sandwich. You want one with fresh, preferably local ingredients, on great bread, with inspired condiments and add-ons to match, making that sandwich a meal.

Does that perfect sandwich even exist, outside of our imaginations? It does in the minds of a quartet of sandwich-makers, looking to reclaim their lives while seeking said perfect sandwich in “Clyde’s,” the Lynn Nottage comedy now at the Huntington Theatre through April 23.

The diverse group of sandwich makers all have one thing in common: Time served behind bars. After leaving prison, they have all found a succession of doors slammed in their faces and they are struggling financially, emotionally, and in every other way as they attempt to rebuild lives turned upside down by their mistakes.

“Clyde’s” came about largely from the research playwright Nottage did for the working-class Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” the bookend to her previous Pulitzer for “Ruined.”

With “Clyde’s,” she expands her literary palette while bringing to vivid life a diverse group of desperate souls in a poignant, heartfelt, piece with downbeat themes that still manages to have humor spread deftly throughout it.

“Clyde’s” takes place entirely within the kitchen of a truck stop sandwich shop in Berk County in the Reading, Pa., area; Reading also happens to be the site of “Sweat.”

Cyndii Johnson as Lericia and Wesley Guimarães as Rafael in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s.” Photo credit: Muriel Steinke, Berkeley Rep

In that kitchen are Letitia (Cyndii Johnson), Rafael (Wesley Guimarães), Jason (Louis Reyes McWilliams), and Montrellous (Harold Surratt).

Montrellous is older than the others, a mystical type possessing the wisdom of someone who has learned to survive, even in what proves to be a toxic environment such as the kitchen in “Clyde’s. As the characters reveal the backstories that put them in prison, his will be perhaps the saddest and most poignant of all.

As if getting back on their feet after prison wasn’t tough enough, there are other roadblocks.  Leticia has a disabled daughter who needs constant care; stealing medicine for her was what put her in prison.

Rafael, gently and with humor, courts Leticia while contemplating with the rest of the group how he happened to fall into his current situation.

Jason, the newest of the group and festooned with white supremacist tattoos he called a matter of “survival” in prison, has chosen to camp outside rather than living in a shelter.

Montrellous has been on a mission to make the perfect sandwich, and the others join in. There’s great fun to be had when the workers riff on the ingredients that would make for that sandwich, mixing and matching outrageous combinations in a quest to outdo each other.

And then there is Clyde (April Nixon), the owner of the truck stop who provides employment that is tenuous at best, constantly threatening to take it away and possibly sending them back to prison. She knows how desperate they are and uses it to her advantage, telling them they are all “losers.”

And while she barks out orders and administers verbal abuse, she also is in many ways one of them, bearing the scars of hard knocks and is determined not to slide back into prison.

Nixon’s Clyde is also a glamorous show horse, sporting an array of stunning, form-fitting outfits perhaps never seen before or since on a woman working the counter of a truck stop. That includes a different outfit and wig from scene to scene, bringing Megan Ellis’s skills in hair, wig, and makeup design to the fore.

With their backs constantly against the wall, the workers vow to stand their ground and push back against Clyde’s constant attacks. What form that might take is at the crux of the piece.

Superb production values have been a hallmark of Huntington productions for many years, and Nottage’s work is given its best possible presentation by a gifted team of designers.  Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s kitchen is balanced and detailed, Aubrey Dube’s sound sets just the right tone, and they are ably complemented by Karen Perry’s costumes and Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting.

Director Taylor Reynolds has molded her cast into a cohesive, tightly-wound unit, with each knowing when to up the emotional ante or pull back and let others take the lead. They may be led by Surratt and Nixon, but there is no wrong note in the ensemble.

Thanks to Nottage’s and Reynolds’ skills, you’ll find by the end of your visit to Clyde’s you are rooting for the future success of the workers while also pining for a bite of that perfect sandwich.

The Huntington and Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Clyde’s,” Play by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Taylor Reynolds. At the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., through April 23.