Yes, I thought long and hard about the headline above this review. But no play in recent memory has shed more light on the crises and tribulations of America’s great retrenched working middle class than Lynn Nottage’s new play, Sweat, which has opened at the Public Theater after previous productions in Oregon and Washington D.C. And here’s another anomaly to chew on: It’s a brilliant play from the author and director of the Pulitzer prize-winning Ruined, spectacularly staged by Kate Whoriskey with a smashing ensemble and design. But it’s not a great one, which I’ll explain (and which may not really matter). But first:
Moving back and forth across time between 2000 and 2008, Sweat is set in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s a factory town whose once-proud union work force is being bled dry, first by the leveraged-buyout frenzy of the 1980s and now, if you believe the frightened, anger-fueled chatter at the local
watering holes, by the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Companies that aren’t shutting down outright and moving to Mexico and elsewhere are laying off workers whose families have invested their sweat equity in these operations for generations. These folks have seen their retirement funds decimated, their wages decreased while their hours are increased and conditions grow from tolerable to squalid.
Under these circumstances, two conditions fester: the hunkering down of people sharing their misery while self-medicating with booze, drugs and sex; and the poison of xenophobia in which any outsider is perceived as a threat to be extinguished. The tension between them is what drives Sweat, which begins in 2008 with a parole officer’s (Lance Coadie Williams) interrogation of two recently released young men: the thoughtful, confused Chris (Khris Davis), who is African-American, and Jason (Will Pullen), who is white and whose face is ravaged with tats indicating an affinity with Aryan Nation types.
They were childhood buds, their mothers best friends and co-workers. But back in 2000, Chris’ mother Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) competed with Jason’s mother Tracey (Johanna Day) for a step up to management, and since Cynthia won the post, their relationship has frayed, as it has with their increasingly dissolute friend Jessie (Miriam Shor). It’s all that Stan (James Colby), the bar-keep at their hangout and himself a former factory cog, can do to keep them civil, especially as the drinks keep flowing.
Nottage turns up the heat by adding to this volatile mix Oscar (Carlo Albán), American-born of Colombian immigrants who sweeps up in the bar, and Brucie (John Earl Jelks), Chris’s father, a pathetic addict who can still charm Cynthia. Both men are victims of a plot that gathers force with the tragic fury of inevitability, as it becomes clear that Cynthia has, in time-honored tradition, been promoted to do the dirty work of locking out her friends and forcing a ruinous strike from which no one will emerge unscathed.
To her vast credit, and as evidenced in her growing body of work, Nottage gives us fully realized characters who, even when acting on their worst fears, are grippingly human. And Whoriskey proves again to be her steadfast collaborator, choreographing the unfolding events with intense specificity. She’s helped immensely by John Lee Beatty’s detailed set, Peter Kaczorowski’s brooding lighting and Jennifer Moeller’s character-perfect clothes. (Also, necessarily, by U. Jonathan Toppo’s fight work, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s underscoring and Jeff Sugg’s flashpoint projections.) Drawn in part from interviews the playwright and director conducted with workers like these, Sweat never feels less than authentic — and crucial.
I write those words, however, allowing for some stilted writing — particularly in the opening scene — and more speechifying than the play needs. When Cynthia apologizes for her part in the lockout, Tracey responds:
What am I supposed to do with that? Huh? What do you want me to do with that? You know what? This is my first time outta my house in one solid week. Do you know what it’s like to get up and have no place to go? I ain’t had the feeling ever. I’m a worker. I have worked since I could count money. That’s me. And I’m thinking I’m not gonna go out, you know why? Because I don’t wanna spend money, because when my unemployment runs out, I may have nothing. So, I don’t go anywhere. And if Jessie hadn’t called me, I’d still be sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself, picking at my f…ing cuticles. Why’d you come in here? Huh? What do you want?
There’s no doubting the pain behind those words, but they repeat what’s already known. Ruined, the harrowing play that revealed the brutal consequences for women of civil war in Congo, was more economically written. If that seems nit-pickish in light of so powerful a production – and there’s not a weak link in this superb ensemble — of a play as depressing as this morning’s headlines (despite plenty of bleak humor), well it shouldn’t deter anyone from seeing it. Whatever the outcome of next Tuesday’s election, Sweat will have done more to articulate what many people in this country are feeling than all the blather we’ve been force-fed these last unending, unendurable months.