Sweat, which won the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, is reputedly inspired by interviews conducted by playwright Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey in Reading, Pennsylvania, named the poorest city in America in 2011. By 2007, Reading had seen its factories and mills closing as NAFTA and globalization made it cheaper to produce goods in Mexico or China, without offering its residents anything but unemployment insurance. The play could probably have taken place in one of a dozen places in the Rust Belt. Sweat’s main characters are all eventually affected by this downward trend in a community that has few opportunities.
Segueing between 2000 and 2008, most of the play takes place at the local bar where a group of factory workers and long time friends from Olstead’s Steel Mill like to come for a drink after work. Many are legacy workers whose families had jobs at the mill for three generations, and they have known no other life. Tracey (Johanna Day), Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) are regulars, along with Tracey’s son Jason (Will Pullen) and Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis), best buds, who also work at Olstead’s.
Presiding over the bar is placid manager Sam (James Colby) who worked at the plant for 28 years until a leg injury ended his factory career, and his Colombian-American busboy Oscar (Carlo Albán). Another regular is Brucie (John Earl Jelks), separated from Cynthia: his almost two years on strike at another plant has pushed him into addiction and petty crime. Whoriskey’s ultra-realistic production superbly creates this tight community, a feat she previously evoked in Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined which she also directed.
Even before the layoffs and lock-outs begin, there are signs of problems: Oscar has seen a flyer calling for temporary workers to apply for jobs at a greater salary than he earns now, but Tracey tells him it must be a mistake. Jessie has become a regular drunk ever since her divorce and her ex-husband’s remarriage. After 24 years on the line, Cynthia, who is African-American, is ready to apply for a supervisory position being offered to someone from the floor, but Caucasian Tracey resents her move as she has worked there two years longer. Twenty-something Jason has no further ambition than buying a second-hand motorcycle, and he mocks Chris, another twenty-something, when he finds out that his friend has applied to college in the fall in order to prepare for a high school teaching career. Racism rears its ugly head as the white characters can’t deal with either Cynthia or the usually ignored Oscar getting ahead of them.
Though it is engrossing, the first act is mainly exposition setting up relationships, backstory and faint warnings of things to come, and taking its time telling its story. However, it is not until the second act when the lockout at the mill begins that the play finally comes into its own, and as the downward spiral begins for almost all of the characters, we are riveted to their reactions and their fates. The play is bookended by a scene in the Reading parole office in 2008 (broken into several parts), years after most of the action, as Jason and Chris are interviewed after an eight year confinement. When we finally find out about the anger that put them in prison at the play’s climax, it is almost too much to bear.
The parts are juicy and under Whoriskey’s astute direction, the cast makes the most of them. Day makes Tracey, a widow with limited options, a time bomb about to go off at any moment. Wilson is excellent as Cynthia who has to tread a fine path between her addicted husband, her white friends, and her son who is equally at loose ends. Shor gives a frighteningly believable performance as a woman who has succumbed to alcoholism to assuage her depression. Colby’s fine portrayal of Stan becomes the moral arbiter of this small group of friends.
Pullen and Davis play contrasting types as the young men stuck in a town with little to do and little mobility. We feel Albán’s pain as Oscar, the Colombian born in Reading, but seen by the others as an outsider who should go back where he came from. Jelks evokes sympathy as Brucie who has been out of work for two years but has made tragic choices dealing with it. As the parole officer, Lance Coadie Williams is a very level-headed authority figure.
Part of the success of the production is John Lee Beatty’s realistic bar settings, both inside and out, complete down to the last detail. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes have the lived-in look of what people actually wear in their free time. Pete Kaczorowski’s subtle lighting direction helps toward creating the believable atmosphere of Beatty’s sets including several stylized ones. The fight direction by U. Jonathan Toppo is horrifyingly real when it is finally needed. A clever device is the projection design by Jeff Sugg which gives us documentary and television footage which helps establish the time period. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat is ultimately a powerful experience that delineates a serious economic problem which affects many Americans but without offering any solutions.
Sweat (extended through December 18, 2016)
Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission