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Playwright Lynn Nottage tackles deindustrialization head-on in her 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat, which deals with racism as well as shared economic distress, now running at People’s Light.
The play opens with an intense confrontation between a sullen white man with Aryan Nation tattoos on his forehead and a menacing black parole officer. Then we shift back eight years, where the same white man is young, clean-cut, and happy, part of a bunch of earthy and diverse steelworkers reveling at the neighborhood bar. You get the idea: something foul has happened.
Inspired by life
Sweat had a long genesis. Nottage teamed up with director Kate Whoriskey (they also worked together on Nottage’s Ruined) and spent two years interviewing dispossessed workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Sweat was the result. Via a montage of interlocking scenes, we peek into the lives, loves, and fears of workers in the old town.
Director Elena Araoz never lets the pace slacken as we observe their fates. Stan (William Zielinski), an older man disabled by an industrial accident, manages the bar. Oscar (Dakota Granados) is a young Latino man who buses tables while dreaming of entering the steel mill and living a better life.
Jason (David Kenner) is the tattooed man of the opening scene and Chris (Brandon J. Pierce), a black man, is his best friend. Their mothers, Tracey (played with verve by Monica Steuer) and Cynthia (Lisa Strum) are best friends. Along with hard-drinking Jessie (Teri Lamm), they carouse as they celebrate birthdays.
Set designer Roman Tatarowicz transforms the Steinbright Stage into an industrial panorama. Overhead, rusted girders arch over the hardscrabble saloon. Behind a corner wooden bar, with its tidy stock of liquor bottles, is a rear wall of whorled factory glass, where we glimpse the moving shadows of characters about to enter the bar.
A nation’s theater
You can see the effect of politics in a nation’s theater. The Great Depression weighs heavily on the imaginations of American playwrights like Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. In Chekhov’s floundering tragicomic characters are visions of Kerensky's pathetic Provisional Government.
But the subject of deindustrialization hasn’t taken a primary role in America’s theater, or our national politics. You might not know the part that massive deindustrialization played in the modern history of many major cities, or its fatal effect on thousands of small towns.
A national service
Sweat is a breath of fresh air, but it's not without flaws. Though the plot is well conceived, Tracey is the only psychologically vital character. The destruction of her workplace destroys her. She moves jerkily about the stage, never knowing who to hug or who to hit.
Other characters are less well developed. Chris and Cynthia, mother and son, are just “good” people trapped by their environment. Similarly, husband/father Brucie (Bowman Wright) is given no personality apart from job-induced drug addiction. Jason’s contradictions are unexplained, while the evident anger of parole officer Evan (Akeem Davis) never settles into a plausible direction.
In its naturalistic language, you sense the play’s research origins. Sweat feels a bit manufactured, assembled, put together. Still, in Araoz’s capable hands, the show drives hard at the finish, as the tragedy of bartender Stan emerges as an affecting metaphor for the destructive workplace reality that has engulfed everyone’s lives. And after 50 years in which neither our theater nor our politics have fully grappled with the subject, Nottage’s play is something of a national service.
What, When, Where
Sweat. By Lynn Nottage, Elena Araoz directed. Through February 17, 2019, at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.
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