By Sandi Durell
Lynn Nottage’s new heart rending drama revitalizes the plight of factory workers as rumors spread of the local steel factory’s possible closing, leaving friendships and families torn apart, exposing inherent racial bias and the violence that ensues.
Set in Reading, Pa., the play shifts back in time from a current 2008 where the white hot-headed Jason (Will Pullen) and black more compliant Chris (Khris Davis) are engaged with their parole officer (Lance Coadie Williams), as small remnants of what is to unfold are offered up. They each step out of the perfectly created designed projections (by Jeff Sugg) that make for their individual spaces.
Eight years prior (2000), the turntable set exquisitely conceived by John Lee Beatty, reverts to a bar where the workers gather for drinks at the end of their long tiring days on the floor at the factory – a place to let loose. Jason’s mother Tracey (Johanna Day) is meeting Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) Chris’ mother, and a perpetually imbibed Jessie (Miriam Shor). It’s Tracey’s birthday. The bartender Stan (James Colby), who put in 28 years at that factory before an injury, is like the group psychiatrist as he clarifies and explains in depth various insinuations and topics of conversation. His helper is the quiet Oscar (Carlo Alban), a young Colombian who Tracey calls a Puerto Rican.
The topic turns to more urgent matters as rumors are spreading about changes at the plant. Rumblings are adrift of jobs going to Mexico. It’s also the place where friends Chris and Jason work. In fact, it’s the place where generations of these current workers trace their families’ histories; where the only aspiration is to get a job at the plant and make it into the union to feel protected. However, Chris has a different objective – a chance to go to college for which his friend Jason makes fun of him.
The gutsy Cynthia sees an opportunity, after 24 years on the line, to put in for a management position to which Tracey reacts with jealousy – “Management is for them, not us.” Cynthia has experienced, first hand, the horrors of union lockout when her now estranged husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) lost his job at a local textile mill, and turned to drugs.
Tempers flare, tensions rise, friendships are torn apart as this truth becomes reality and the lockouts begin. Oscar becomes the pawn for Tracey’s racial slurs and hatred, Jason and Chris’ anger and for all their frustrations when he applies for a non-union job for more pay than he makes at the bar and crosses the picket line. It is Stan who tries to keep them level-headed but to no avail.
The result: a more than disturbing and violent climax. This is truly a close-knit ensemble of fine actors who work brilliantly together under Kate Whoriskey’s fine tutelage.
This socio-economic and racial tragedy gives pause to the many issues raised. The topic isn’t new but a reminder in its realistic portrayal of the problems that plague our country.
Special acknowledgement to fight director U. Jonathan Toppo as well as lighting designer, Peter Kaczorowski.
Sweat has been extended thru December 18 at the Public Theater (Martinson Hall) 425 Lafayette St. 212 260-2400, Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 minutes with intermission www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus