Playwright Lynn Nottage has written two works that have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Her first, Ruined, provided a memorable portrait of a group of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo trying to survive a war zone where weapons against them were rape and sexual abuse. Her second, Sweat, is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, and tells the story of a group of factory workers trying to survive a shut-down of their plant. Of the two prize-winning plays, Sweat is the lesser. San Diego Repertory Theatre nevertheless gives it a powerful production that could leave audiences enthralled.
The play is mostly set in a bar that serves as the hangout for a group of factory workers. The bartender is Stan (Jason Heil), and his assistant is Oscar (Markuz Rodriguez). The regulars are three women: Tracey (Judy Bauerlein), Cynthia (Monique Gaffney), and Jessie (Hannah Logan). They are often joined by a male co-worker, Jason (Steve Froelich). Cynthia’s son, Chris (Cortez Johnson) and ex-husband Brucie (Matt Orduña) know that they can find her there.
As Sweat begins, the crew at the bar are happy with the middle-class life that unionized factory work has provided them. They even discuss how jobs are literally passed down within families so that the next generation has access to the same opportunities that accrued to their parents. And, some may choose other paths: Chris, for example, plans to attend college and become a high school teacher.
There is trouble looming on the horizon, though. The plant has been unable to settle with some of its union employees and has locked them out. Work has been cut back, despite an opportunity for advancement into management that looks as though it will go to a current worker. As time goes by, the situation continues to deteriorate, and by the play’s end the plant is closing, and the work is moving out of the U. S.
As the middle-class life slips away, the workers become angry and frustrated and take it out on each other. Clearly, everyone is facing poverty with no solutions in sight. The happy crew become embittered and it wouldn’t be surprising if, eight years later, they would unanimously vote for Donald Trump to be elected U. S. President.
Ms. Nottage based Sweat on interviews she conducted with similar workers in Reading. The language in the play sounds authentic, but there’s little sense of poetry, which makes listening to it difficult. Several of the characters get “stuck,” and while there’s an overall dramatic arc, some of the performers face the necessity of making the familiar different enough to hold audience interest. Ms. Nottage helps somewhat by playing some scenes out of chronological order, which serves to provide explanation for motivations in other scenes. But, a lot of making this play work comes down to the abilities of the actors.
Fortunately, the Rep has been blessed with a cast that works hard at making the familiar interesting. Some have it easier than others: Ms. Gaffney and Mr. Heil have roles that are integral to the overall story, for example. And, in a small role that bookends the beginning and end of the play, Antonio T.J. Johnson, provides a model of finding new meaning in familiar language. Ms. Bauerlein, Mr. Cortez Johnson, and Mr. Rodriguez are the most conflicted characters, and they struggle with the tendency to get bogged down in the conflicts. Mr. Froelich, Ms. Logan, and Mr. Orduña play the most under-written characters, and each struggles (sometimes quite successfully) to avoid becoming stuck with playing their types. I especially appreciated Ms. Logan’s talents at finding the humor in otherwise serious dialogue.
Director Sam Woodhouse is an enormous help here, using his skill to maximize audience identification with his characters. This really is an actor’s show, and these actors are directed to give it their all – which they do.
I should especially note that Mr. Heil stepped in with little notice for the indisposed Jeffrey Jones and acquitted himself magnificently on opening night. Current plans are for Mr. Jones to return when he can resume performing.
The technical elements are not the stars here, but they are capably accomplished by John Iacovelli (Scenic Design), Elisa Benzoni (Costume Design), Matthew Lescault-Wood (Sound Design/Audio Supervisor), Anne E. McMills (Lighting Design), and Samantha Rojales (Projection Design). I should single out James Newcomb’s fight direction as being particularly exciting and realistic.
Despite my reservations, the Rep should be congratulated for bringing Sweat to San Diego audiences and for matching the power of the content with the power of its performance.