November 30, 2016

"Sweat" Speaks Up for The Working Class

They may not know it but serious theatergoers owe a big debt of gratitude to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which, despite its name, has commissioned a series of dynamic plays that focus on significant moments in American history.

Since its start in 2008, "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle," as the project is officially known, has spawned such works as All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's Tony winner about LBJ's efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act;  Roe, Lisa Loomer's acclaimed account of the 1973 Supreme Court case that gave women the right to have an abortion; and now Sweat, Lynn Nottage's look at the last decade in which the loss of industrial jobs has upended the working class in this country.

As she did with her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, Nottage interviewed real-life people who had experienced the problems she wanted to investigate in her play. She and her frequent collaborator director Kate Whoriskey spent two years talking to people in Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial hub so affluent that it has its own square on the Monopoly game board.

But by 2011, Reading had become the poorest city in the U.S. as factory after factory closed and once proud blue-collar workers turned to booze, drugs, welfare and despair (click here to read about her reporting process).

Nottage's fictionalized account of those woes zeros in on two friends, a black woman named Cynthia and a white woman named Tracey, who've spent years working together in a steel tubing plant, supporting one another through bad marriages and raising now-grown sons Chris and Jason, who, like their moms, became co-workers and best friends.

The play opens with brief scenes in which each son is seen meeting with a parole officer and then flashes back eight years to a time when they're all happily celebrating the birthday of another friend at the neighborhood bar that is the local hangout and so authentically designed by John Lee Beatty that you can practically smell the scent of stale beer.

But the good times quickly end. After Cynthia gets a low-level management job that forces her to make some tough decisions about her friends, tensions mount, racial animosities surface, hostilities arise between those who have jobs and those who don't and eventually violence erupts.

The basic tale is familiar. Dominique Morriseau's even more intimate play Skeleton Crew recently covered much of the same territory, right down to the up-from-the-ranks manager who is pushed to betray old friends.

Nottage attempts to shake up her narrative with time shifts between 2000 and 2008 and a hint of mystery about how Chris and Jason ended up with a parole officer. But the moral of the story is the same: the American Dream is becoming more and more elusive for working-class people.

Whoriskey directs the narrative with straightforward efficiency. And the nine-member cast lead by Michelle Wilson as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey is strong, with particularly affecting work coming from James Colby as the bar manager who vainly tries to provide solace and common ground.

Nottage doesn't pretend to have answers about how to remedy the problems her play examines but, as she did with Ruined, she can't resist ending the play on a hopeful note that seemed unrealistic to me.

Still, as the rise of Donald Trump makes clear, those of us who are doing reasonably well need to do a better job of understanding the distress of those of us who aren't. And Sweat, which opened at The Public Theater a week before the election and closes this weekend, is a good place to start.

No comments: