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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Sweat sees Lynn Nottage at a pinnacle in her career. Even when she was still testing the waters as a playwright with Mud, River, Stone in 1997, Nottage created authentic, interesting and contemplation inducing characters. She followed that fledgling effort with a trilogy of plays about African-American women over various decades prompting comparisons to August Wilson's ten-decade play cycle.
While more consistently naturalistic and less poetic than Wilson, Nottage has been an adventurous stylist and rounded enough to broaden her focus. Thus the story of Esther the seamstress Intimate Apparel gained warmth and universality through several wonderful white characters. The same was true for Undine of Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine and Vera of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.
With her 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winning Ruined Nottage returned to an African locale (Mud was in Mozambique), this time to the civil war ravaged Congo where she traveled several times to interview brutalized women victims. Careful, research into the world and people she plans to fictionalize was again part of her process when she was commissioned to write a play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions project about significant points in American history, but she didn't have to travel so far this time.
Reading, Pennsylvania, a city at the tip of the Rust belt seemed a perfect place to explore the wide ranging effect on working class American lives by what she saw as "the de-industrial revolution." The characters she created during her Reading field work ended up representing the whole gamut of this city's blue collar workers scrambling for work — not just disenfranchised African-Americans but equally exiled from the middle class white men and women without college educations and more recent Latino citizens attracted to Reading's one-time wealth of job opportunities.
While Sweat plays out between 2000 and 2008, paralleling George W. Bush's presidency and the aftermath of NAFTA, the struggle to adjust to the changes in the blue collar work place have continued to widen the income inequality, and seeded the volatile election still up in the air when the play had its official opening earlier this week at the Public Theater.
Obviously, the importance of those real life counterparts of Sweat's characters on November 8th of 2016, as well as an ever escalating drug epidemic in places like Reading, have made the New York production eerily relevant and timely. And, though I found the play's structure and conflicts too schematic and familiar to really tap into my deepest emotions until late in the second act, I don't think it will — or should — fade away along with the candidates defeated on this year's election day. With its naturalistic richly characterized story telling and structure, it's a worthy heir to Arthur Miller's American Dream destroying Death of a Salesman.
Kate Whoriskey, who also directed Ruined and Fabulations the production achieves a fine balance between the familial closeness and the simmering undercurrents of potential strains in the friendships and racial harmony that the changes at the Olstead factory will irrevocably boil over into violence.
While the playwright is clearly on the workers' side, it's to her credit that she hasn't put on blinders to hide some of her characters' failure to grow and make themselves less totally done in by changes beyond their control.
The regulars at the Berks County Bar that dominates John Lee Beatty's splendidly detailed revolving set, include hard drinking tough talkers with less than ideal family situations. All except two count on their sense of entitlement to the jobs they have —, defiantly, or because of insecurity— dismissing their own or anyone else's efforts to improve themselves.
Jeff Sugg's projections enliven and illuminate the live on stage scenes which begin with a dark minimally furnished opening scene that sets up the crime element. That 2008 scene has the two youngest characters, Jason (Will Pullen) and Chris (Khris Davis) both meeting with their parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams). It's to find out what they did and why, that's the r'aison d'etre for the flashback to 2000 and the saloon where the plot unfolds. Even the lighter moments are overhung by our anticipating some sort of shocker to clarify that opening.
Once we flash back to the saloon we discover that Jason and Chris were good friends even though Chris is clearly the smarter, more sensitive and ambitious (and as portrayed by Khris Davis, the character who most moves us). The bar's middle-aged women regulars include Jason's tough and opinionated mom Tracey (Johanna Day adding another memorable character to a hefty resume) and Chris's determinedly ambitious Cynthia (Michelle Wilson). Cynthia is not afraid to take a chance on applying for a management job and come what may she won't succumb to drugs like her estranged husband Brucie (veteran actor John Earl Jelks) has. Tracey and Cynthia's friend Jessie (Miriam Shor), whose inability to deal with being deserted by her husband is something of a metaphor for the way some of of these once secure job holders will react to being orphaned by the de-industrial revolution that explodes the sense sharing good times.
Of Course, any play that spends most of its time in a saloon calls for a bar tender to pour the drinks along with some philosophical nuggets. James Colby fills the bill with a satisfying mix of humor, bitterness and poignance. Since Colby's Stan also worked at Olstead until a faulty machine crippled him and soured him about the company's being worth three generations of loyal service, that leaves his Columbian helper Oscar (a terrifically understated Carlo Alban) as the outsider to trigger the explosion and also provide a smidgen of hope to what might alternately be titled An American Tragedy.
Much as the Public Theater is to be commended for giving New York theatergoers a look at the sort of people who brought Bernie Sanders' "revolution" and Donald Trump's appeal to their anger to the forefront of this presidential campaign, Sweat is not the only recent play to focus on embattled working class characters. Earlier this season, the Atlantic Theater mounted a splendid production of Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew about four people at a Detroit motor part plant also faced with de-industrialization. The more the merrier, when it comes to giving voice to this segment of the population not always front and center on New York stages.
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Sweat by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Cast: Carlo Alban (Oscar), James Colby (Stan), Khris Davis (Chris), Johanna Day (Tracey), John Earl Jelks (Brucie), Will Pullen (Jason), Miriam Shor (Jessie), Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), and Michelle Wilson (Cynthia).
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Original Music and Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Hair and Makeup: Leah J. Loukas
Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo
Stage Manager: Donald Fried
Running Time: 2 hours 1/2 hours includes one 15 minute intermission.
Martinson Hall-Public Theater 420 Lafayette Street
From 10/18/16; opening 11/03/16; closing 12/18/16
Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 4th matinee
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