Lynn Nottage last year became the first woman to win a second Pulitzer Prize for Drama thanks to her play Sweat, a dramatization of the collapse of the American unskilled labor market circa 2000, now receiving its Baltimore premiere in a workmanlike production under the direction of Vincent Lancisi at Everyman. Nottage depicts this national catastrophe in microcosm through the implosion of two families – one white, one black – in Reading, Pennsylvania, while the voices of news commentators between scenes alert us of the greater tragedy transpiring across the nation.
If you ever wondered what kind of play Clifford Odets would have written about this crisis, Sweat is your answer. Two lifelong friends who become bitter enemies when they find themselves on opposite sides of a labor dispute? Check. A leftist sage whose warnings go unheeded, and who might as well be wearing a halo – or a target? Check. Two angry young men who throw away their potential in a senseless act of violence? Check. This is not to say that such things don’t happen all the time in real life, or even that Nottage doesn’t give us a well-oiled theatrical machine. It’s just that you can always see the wheels turning.
Also like Odets, Nottage’s schematic but undeniably effective dramaturgy is studded with rhinestones of blue-collar poetry. When asked why she stayed in Reading rather than leave to pursue her dreams in lands she’s only read about, one worker replies, “Got caught in the riptide and couldn’t get back to shore.” And when attempting to describe what it was like to await her son’s release from an eight-year prison sentence, his mother confesses, “You just became X’s on the calendar.”
Do you detect a streak of fatalism here? These are people who believe the world should run like the assembly line in their factory, never changing with the times but always providing the same return on an investment. When disaster strikes, they never think to look inward, but instead either flail about in the waves – “What happened?” is the script’s most repeated line, even by the people who set in motion the action in question – or turn their rage against outsiders, who have no more identity to them than X’s in a ledger, even though these people are clearly being equally victimized by the system. What everyone fails to consider is that the gears of the machine are grinding exactly as they’re supposed to, it’s just that human lives have become caught in the cogs.
Daniel Ettinger’s set consists of two locations rotated on a turntable that runs as inexorably as the wheels of progress, albeit a good deal more smoothly. One of those locales is a beautifully appointed bar that appears as inviting as the watering hole in Cheers, thus making the resentments and retributions that flare there seem all the more out of place. But I was even more impressed by his use of an institutional gray wall to evoke both two prison cells and, later, two poverty-row apartments where the residents are similarly incarcerated.
Everyman company members Deborah Hazlett and Dawn Ursula are assigned most of the heavy lifting, dramatically speaking, and the perspiration is sometimes palpable. In truth, I never really believed that these two had a bond since childhood, or even that Ursula had spent a quarter of a century on the factory floor; indeed, when she’s promoted to management, it’s as if she’s to the manor born. Far more convincing is Vaughn Ryan Midder as her restless son, whose every fidget seems to come from the soul rather than The Actor’s Workshop. And while Kurt Rhoads does what he can to transform the playwright’s mouthpiece into a credible human being, Megan Anderson actually succeeds in the craftsman’s ideal of taking a throwaway part and refashioning it into a treasure.
Perhaps Nottage’s most subtle and surprising touch is to end each of the newscasts between scenes with an announcement of the temperature “outside,” as if to emphasize that no matter what the weather, inside each character there’s simultaneously a chilly heart and an inflamed mind. Both extremes could be more pronounced at Everyman, but in the end, human warmth does prevail. Perhaps it’s better not to sweat the rest.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.