It’s hard not to view Lynn Nottage’s new play Sweat through the horror dream prism of the recent presidential election even though it was written well before. It received its world premiere nearly two years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, commissioned by the theater’s ambitious American Revolutions program that birthed All the Way and Indecent among others.
Set in a small Pennsylvania factory town between 2000 and 2008, it charts a simmering rage of a working class that is increasingly marginalized. The plant promised and supplied middle class jobs for generations of families and is now demanding a 60% wage cut to keep it from moving to Mexico. It’s a familiar story seen on the news and boiled down into sound bytes for the last few elections, but for those living outside of the experience, it lacked a visceral and personal relevance. Nottage captures the rage and frustration of feeling powerless over your future and being arbitrarily devalued. It’s perhaps why people saw “make America great again” as an optimistic promise rather than a cynical con.
Director Kate Whoriskey helms a superb cast that often favors absorbing a moment and letting in resonant in the deepest reaches of the soul over grandstanding with overwrought gestures. It helps highlight a central theme: before these characters were enemies, they were neighbors and friends. Cynthia’s (Michelle Wilson) promotion off the floor to the low rungs of management has created an icy schism between her and her longtime girlfriends Tracy (Johanna Day) and Jessie (Alison Wright). They cling to race and cite affirmative action as the reason for her promotion. Cynthia and Tracy’s sons, Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) and Jason (Will Pullen) respectively, both work at the factory and have directed their anger at the barback of their local watering hole. The childhood friends share dreams of saving their wages for a nice car or a teaching degree and feel shattered when their union strike is undermined by scabs crossing the picket line.
Oscar (Carlos Albán) is one of them. He’s cleared their drinks for years during long nights of blowing off steam in a warm environment that evokes the familiarity of Cheers, but many of the factory workers don’t know his name and think he’s an illegal Mexican immigrant. He is in fact of Colombian descent and born in America and has been asking anyone who’ll listen to put in a good word for him at the plant. They don’t, and when the strike brings a need for non-union workers, he is eager to step in, noting the wages are substantially more than he makes at the bar.
Nottage crafts a nuanced story where the villains remain off stage pitting working people against each other and using stereotypes to fuel scapegoating that keeps them and their profits insulated from a real revolution. The final line steps into preachy agitprop and diminishes the emotional intensity of the climax, but Sweat is undeniably a painfully topical tragedy, and as another socially conscious playwright once wrote, “attention must be paid.”
Starring: Carlo Albán, James Colby, Khris Davis, Johanna Day, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams, Michelle Wilson and Alison Wright
Directed by: Kate Whoriskey
Written by: Lynn Nottage