For insight into why blue-collar America is so riled up, fed up and downright distraught in 2016, “Sweat” makes for — if nothing more novel — a useful and colorful bases-covering restatement of the causes.
Lynn Nottage’s economic-justice drama narrows the perspective on globalism’s smothering effects to a metal-tubing factory in Reading, Pa., in 2000, where management is placing a devastating foot on the neck of its workforce. The cheaper labor in Mexico is too irresistible a lure for a less emotionally invested, younger generation of plant owners, and as a result, the workers who have spent their lives on the factory floor are compelled to make a wrenching choice: accept lower wages and benefits or go on strike.
The play — unveiled last year in a production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival that now moves essentially intact to Arena Stage — follows too familiar a formula to be a galvanizing evening: plot-wise, it’s rather unremarkable, only a minor variation on an American labor story that has been dramatized thoroughly over the decades, in everything from the works of Arthur Miller to the movie “Norma Rae.”
But if “Sweat” blazes no new trail, you must credit Nottage, author of the searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined,” with bringing back to the stage an issue that convulses so large a swath of the Rust Belt and beyond. With a sullen electorate still deeply resentful over Wall Street’s excesses and the gargantuan government bank bailout of 2008, the drama could not show up in Washington at a more meaningful moment. Indeed, “Sweat” would fit in quite nicely as the opening act at any rally of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
This observation is more a reflection of “Sweat’s” thematic synchronicity with Sanders’s economic message than a criticism of how clearly the play reveals its sympathies. A worker of almost any ideological stripe can relate to the plight of Cynthia (Kimberly Scott), Tracey (Johanna Day) and Jessie (Tara Mallen), middle-aged women who have known no other life than this factory and who suddenly discover that for all the time they’ve put in and all of the honest labor they’ve contributed, they’ve accrued absolutely no sweat equity.
“Three generations of loyalty to the same company,” laments Stan (a fine Jack Willis), who was left permanently injured by an accident at the plant and now tends bar. “You’d think that means something.”
How true this feels these days for most of us — you get a day’s wages for a day’s work and can expect less and less of anything else. That’s part of “Sweat’s” handicap: The story it tells, and the manner in which it’s related, we know too well. The play is set mostly in 2000, in the workingman’s (and woman’s) tavern in which the philosophical Stan works. The reason the events of that year in the bar are dramatized is provided by an intermittent series of scenes taking place in 2008, when Chris and Jason (Tramell Tillman and Stephen Michael Spencer, respectively), the sons of Cynthia and Tracey, are fresh out of prison. We learn that they, too, were employed at the plant and that their crimes relate to a violent incident sparked by the labor troubles — as well as by the wrath of Day’s embittered, volatile Tracey — eight years earlier.
The dimension of “Sweat” that tests the workers’ relationships is its strength. Director Kate Whoriskey has guided the cast to portrayals that feel keenly authentic, especially as they concern the scenes between Scott’s sympathetically drawn Cynthia, and Day’s more caustic and profane Tracey; the drama is at its most effective, in fact, when it is exposing the ways in which the plant owners manage to turn the employees against one another. Scott and Day forge a most persuasive bond as they traverse the ups and downs of Cynthia and Tracey’s friendship. Day offers an admirably unvarnished look at Tracey’s dark side, as the character’s vengeance is turned on Oscar (an excellent Reza Salazar), an American-born Latino busboy who is tempted to become a replacement worker at the plant.
John Lee Beatty’s turntable set on the Kreeger Theater stage features a pub so redolent of everyday America you could imagine Edward Hopper walking in and wanting to paint what he saw; Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, especially for Cynthia, Tracey and Mallen’s funny lush of a Jessie, cleverly amplify the characters’ histories. Tillman is a standout as Chris, a younger man of more sensitive bearing and sturdier ambition than Spencer’s well-played, rougher-hewn Jason — even if the story of their crime plays out too predictably.
Nottage also lets you in, a tad transparently, on the Big Picture she is after: Rather than the game of the week, the TV over the bar is tuned to news channels showing Republican nominee and then newly elected President George W. Bush discussing his positions on issues that will not have a pleasant impact on the workers at that Pennsylvania factory. Even if “Sweat” trafficks at times in dramatic deja vu, though, it does illuminate in this election year some lessons that bear repeating.
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; original music and sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; fight direction, U. Jonathan Toppo; projections, Jeff Sugg. With Kevin Kenerly, Tyrone Wilson. About 2