Change is never easy, but for the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, change means nothing short of utter demise. Sweat, a compelling new play from Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined) takes place between 2000 and 2008, and follows the lives of three 40something women and two of their sons whose worlds have consisted of factory floors, stale cigarettes and shots of whiskey for generations. Guzzling watery beer and passing out into a drool-filled state at the local bar is just another day after work, much like their fathers and grandfathers experienced before them, and there’s pride in that. Sweat is a fascinating study of class and opportunity, or lack thereof.
Tracey (Johanna Day, Proof), a widow who has worked at the Oldstead steel tubing factory since high school, is the acerbic ringleader of the group. Even when she spews hate-filled comments, Day is so magnetic, it’s hard not to feel some sort of sick empathy for Tracey. Her son Jason (Will Pullen) is following in her footsteps and sees nothing beyond the lines of Reading. Jessie (The Americans’ Alison Wright) once had dreams of Peshawar and Kathmandu, but what she thought would be a six-month stint at Oldstead as a teen turned into, well, her life ever since. Cynthia (a terrific Michelle Wilson, A Raisin in the Sun) recently kicked her addict ex Brucie (John Earl Jelks, Radio Golf) out of the house and is seeking a promotion at Oldstead after spending years dealing with aching hands and blood blisters, a byproduct of working the factory floor. Cynthia’s teenage son Chris (Khris Davis, The Royale) has aspirations like his mother — he was just admitted into Albright College’s teaching program, but instead decides to put those plans on hold and work in the factory to save money.
When Cynthia lands the management gig, the dynamic among the three best friends shifts and the play becomes rife with rich complexities. Relationships are strained — Tracey and Jessie accuse Cynthia of becoming one of “them.” She’s high up in an air-conditioned office, no longer sweating with the rest of the work boot-wearing employees. Tracey, who’s white and was overlooked for the promotion, thinks Cynthia got the job because she’s black. Tensions deepen when layoffs begin, and the women believe Cynthia knew all along that they’d be out of work. They are alienated by the future, terrified of the present, and cemented in the past.
Ultimately, it’s the Colombian bar-back Oscar (Carlo Albán, Tamburlaine) who snags a factory floor position under the new regime. His hours are longer and his pay is less than theirs ever was, but it’s a job and beats peeling gum stuck underneath barstools. With utter despair wafting through the bar and no more room for whiskey I.O.U.’s, the original Oldsteaders unleash their fears and grief on Oscar and bartender Stan (James Colby), ultimately landing Jason and Chris in prison.
The majority of Sweat is set in 2000 — songs by Lauryn Hill, Marc Anthony, and even an Alison Wright-rendition of Cher’s “Believe” offer lighthearted diversions to break up intense scenes — with intermittent moments that flash forward to 2008, when Jason and Chris are let out of prison. Jason, no longer boyish and hyperactive, is marked with tattoos that travel across his eye and cheek. Chris’ ambitions have been tempered. While these 2008 scenes feel choppy at times, Pullen and Davis are impressive in their transformation, enabling the audience to see what time, age, and dejection can do to a man. Sweat features a truly remarkable ensemble and it’s a struggle to take your eyes off any one of its layered characters. Far timelier now than when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival back in 2015, Sweat offers a heartbreaking glimpse into the domino effect of what happens when life as you know it is pulled out from under you. B+