It took a while, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped by staging this remarkable play in the summer of 2014. It caused enough of a stir for the Public Theatre in New York to pick it up for a run earlier this year. That’s what it takes to bring a serious play (or even a frivolous one, or a solo piece) to Broadway. We owe gratitude to this particular band of brothers and sisters who joined up, for there is nothing inherently “commercial” about this venture. It is merely stunning; it’s majestic.
What Sweat has is an ensemble of marvelous character actors, each born to play this assortment of the opposite of movers and shakers — call them the hard working laborers who rarely achieve even “middle management” status in corporate life. Lynn Nottage’s play deals with a group of workers at a steel tubing plant in Reading, Pennsylvania, people who have centered their lives around the fortunes of the company that has been their home, and for some the home of their parents and children as well. The play has an opening scene set in 2008, in which a parole officer is doing his best to prepare two prisoners, one white and one black, on how to best handle themselves when they return home to Reading after having spent 8 years in prison as punishment for a crime for which they had both been responsible.
Nottage then moves us back to 2000 and a local bar that has become the hangout for these two men and their mothers, as well as other fellow workers. It is managed and run by Stan, who had come to his job when he suffered a badly damaged foot from a faulty machine. There is a young busboy, a likely lad named Oscar. These scenes in 2000 cover some months into the presidency of George W. Bush, and with them the arrival of NAFTA and the beginnings of factory jobs moving to Mexico, coinciding with erosive rumors about future layoffs for these local people who totally depend on the continuation of life for this factory. As fear creeps in, tensions mount, and ugly long buried truths are unearthed, building to the crime that destroys the mind of one of them, divides three friends into bitter enemies, and sends two others to prison.
Nottage, who interviewed many residents of Reading, who lived through all this, for something like it had actually occurred there, brings vibrant life to all of these characters she’s created. She pumps the blood of full throttled drama into every scene, and as we know from the prologue where we are going, it becomes fascinating to follow how she gets us there. In the light of what actually happened by the disappearance of so many factory jobs for the lower middle class, I found myself understanding the devastating effect of sending millions of them into abject poverty, with side effects of drug addiction, marital discord, and crime.
An absolutely spot on cast has been assembled by director Kate Whoriskey, who has placed them in John Lee Beatty’s instantly atmospheric bar that seems at once dingy and homey. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes dress these people appropriately, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski has used light to open and close the various scenes with great dramatic force.
Nottage has written a coda that offers us all hope, but this is no happy wrap up; it’s more like a silent prayer. Whatever it is, I was very moved by it. Even though it cries out to us to “pay attention” to these people, just as Arthur Miller once asked us to do for his Willie Loman, the writing continues to haunt me. The play is a major work, produced to perfection.
There are nine principal actors and each has his moments that help us to learn where they come from, what they want, what they fear, and the dialogue seems effortless and this playwright does not mince words. Nor are the actors reticent about showing us their rage, their disappointment. One used to say about plays of this power, “it took a man to write it, and another to stage it” (think Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan) but in this new world, that’s yesterday’s news. Lillian Hellman tried, and came close. But Ms. Nottage carries the torch over the finish line. My apologies to the brilliant ensemble of 9 actors (Carlo Alban, James Colby, Johanna Day, Khris Davis, John Earl Jelks, Will Pullen, Lance Coadie Williams, Michelle Wilson and Alison Wright ), but space limits me, and I would need to mention each and every one. On the way home I recaptured in my mind’s eye moments that each supplied, moments I won’t soon forget. They were all saluted by a roar of approval, which they thoroughly deserved.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.