“Blood and Tears, Too”
If Sweat, a timely play by multi-prize-winning dramatist Lynn Nottage (Ruined), is any indication, Reading, Pennsylvania, must have been a hell of a noisy, angry town between 2000 and 2008. Nearly everyone in this significant but unavoidably depressing play about depressed people during a Depression-like job-loss period raises their voice at the slightest provocation; in Kate Whoriskey’s aggressive, whiskey and beer-soaked production (now on Broadway after last fall’s successful premiere at the Public Theatre), each new encounter seems ripe for fireworks.
Sweat is essentially a workplace drama, like so many others of recent years, except that, instead of the action taking place in a factory break room, a teacher’s lounge, a garage, or some other such onsite employee’s locale, most of it transpires in that overworked stage confessional, a barroom. This one’s a joint where the workers at the local steel tubing factory, hang out, and where, judging by the rarity with which money soils the counter, everyone’s got a tab. As costumed in working-class grunge by Jennifer Moeller, the characters look just as they might in real life.
|Johanna Day, Alison Wright, Michelle Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
|Will Pullen, Khris Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Thanks to John Lee Beatty’s revolving set, supplemented by the vivid video projections of Jeff Sugg and the fine lighting of Peter Kaczorowski, we also watch scenes in a parole office, outside the bar, in apartments, and so on. For the most part, though, we’re in a dingy, working-class dive presided over by Stan (James Colby), the stalwart, fatherly barkeep, and his ambitious, low-paid, Columbian-American busboy, Oscar (Carlo Albán).
|Khris Davis, Lance Coadie Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The place the locals--who tend toward the formulaic--work for is Olstead’s, which has been around so long even the forebears of these folks earned a decent living there, with substantial benefits. The gimpy Stan himself worked at Olstead’s until an accident sent him off the line, while Oscar hopes to get a job there as a “temp.” To the NAFTA-hating eyes of Stan’s customers, though, Olstead’s will soon represent the death of their American dream. Given what happens in the play, it's impossible not to think of these hard working, hard drinking people as future Trump supporters.
The one person with no direct factory connection is Evan (Lance Coadie Williams), a parole officer seen in the first scene and toward the end checking on the behavior of two recently released young felons, the volatile Jason (Will Pullen), his face covered with white supremacist tattoos, and the steadier Chris (Khris Davis), an African-American who’s moved from being Jason’s best buddy to the other end of the friendship spectrum. Both were involved in an act of violence whose horror the play’s flashback structure is designed ultimately to reveal.
|Michelle Williams, John Earl Jelks. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
In addition to Chris and Jason, the workers are Chris’s parents, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and her estranged, laid-off, junkie husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks); Tracey (Johanna Day), Chris’s high-strung mom, the third generation of her family employed by Olstead’s; and the bibulous Jessie (Alison Wright), whose youthful dream of a hippie trek to “Istanbul, Tehran, Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, Lahore, Kathmandu,” as she recites it, will forever be deferred.
|Johanna Day, Carlo Alban. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Over the course of 10 months in 2000 (the dates are projected on the set) we observe these people’s interactions as they learn of threats to their livelihood because of cutbacks at Olstead’s, and of their fear and anger as they refuse to accept management’s demeaning offers.
|Alison Wright, Will Pullen, Michelle Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The pressures under which these slaves to a dying manufacturing economy are forced to survive—accented by TV clips of political news of the Bush years (the Wall Street bailout included)—gradually increase their mutual tensions. Jason and Chris strike sparks over their different dreams for the future. The women struggle to retain their friendship when Cynthia wins out over Tracey for a supervisory position that—just as in Off-Broadway’s recent Dolphins and Sharks—creates furious disagreements when her job puts her in conflict with her fellow workers. Worst of all is when people’s frustrations force them to use racial and ethnic fears as a catalyst for hatred.
|Carlo Alban, John Earl Jelks, James Colby, Johanna Day, Michelle Williams, Alison Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Sweat takes us into dark waters, showing not only the financial impact on these people of losing their livelihoods but the consequent emotional and psychological toll affecting society as a whole. There are moments of humor, of course, but nothing can assuage the churning of your stomach when you contemplate the hardships of the unemployed, especially if you know someone experiencing such a plight.
Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Nottage doesn’t opt for magic realism or surrealistic devices to make her points; Sweat is naturalistic drama, its dialogue prosaic and profane. But, generally honest as is her depiction of this tragic situation, it’s more the dramatization of a condition than of an action.
|Michelle Williams, Johanna Day. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Keeping the ball in the air until the denouement strains the bounds of credulity; the nearly two-and-a-half-hour play becomes a sequence of disputes forcing us to accept the barroom as such a crucible of overheated temperament it’s amazing anyone would ever want to go there twice. The emotions are so raw, in fact, it’s easy to see Sweat transformed into a social protest musical along the lines of The Cradle Will Rock.
Fortunately, all the performances are strong (some a bit overly so), but hats are off especially to Colby as the play’s steadiest anchor in a raging storm; to Albán as the sacrificial victim; to Davis as a man who finds hope amid despair; and to Wilson as a woman torn between the obligations to her job and her friends.
Sweat dramatizes a real national tragedy with careful attention to detail but it breaks no new ground, tells us nothing we didn’t already know, and suggests no way out. As I said before, it may be timely but it's also pretty depressing.
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