'Sweat' at ACT Personalizes the Economic Sorrows of the Rust Belt
by Jay Barmann
Halfway through Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning portrayal of steel workers in mid-2000s Pennsylvania, I found myself wondering if this play, while masterfully written, wasn’t just an elaborate and manipulative indictment of NAFTA — and therefore a thinly veiled piece of pro-Trump propaganda. But through the delicate shifts and poignant epiphanies of her characters, Nottage pulls off something that’s at once powerful and deeply personal: This is a play about people being slowly ground down by circumstance, and left with barely enough to breath to ask why.
While a couple of characters in Sweat may blame NAFTA for the loss of jobs in their community and the ultimate shuttering of an 80-year-old steel plant, Nottage has bigger priorities here than politics. The play, a new production of which opened last week at ACT, bounces back and forth in time between 2008 and 2000, with much of the action taking place in a neighborhood bar in Reading, PA — the authentically worn-in set by Andrew Boyce deserves high praise. Tracey (Lise Bruneau), Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon), and Cynthia (Tonye Patano) are childhood friends who all took jobs out of high school at the local steel plant where, at least in Tracey’s case, her father and grandfather had worked before her. They’re hard-drinking ladies but hardly vulgar and not at all ignorant, and we first meet them just after New Year’s in the new millennium, late one night while they’ve been celebrating Tracey’s birthday — we first meet Jessie passed out face down on a table.
The first inkling of conflict comes when Tracey and Cynthia start talking about a manager job that’s come available, and for which the company brass are encouraging floor workers to apply. Flash forward a few months, and Cynthia gets the job over Tracey, but within months it will prove itself to be more of a curse than a blessing.
We also meet Stan (Rod Gnapp), who’s been tending bar since being injured on a factory floor; Oscar, a young Columbian-American barback; Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris) and Jason (David Darrow), who are, respectively, the sons of Cynthia and Tracey and who also work at the plant; and Brucie (Chike Johnson), Cynthia’s heroin-addicted, estranged husband, and Chris’s dad, who was laid off from a different factory after a lockout the prior year.
Without revealing too many details, suffice it to say that the downfall of this steel plant is felt in multiple, painful ways by all of these people. No one is spared, and eight years on, the casualties of this economic calamity are everywhere.
Assigning blame for what befalls these people is a tricky business, and no president is mentioned in the course of the play — though there are Obama and McCain campaign billboards that appear via projection on two dynamic screens above the set. Ultimately this isn’t a story about the steel industry or this particular town so much as it is a story about how larger economic machinations take a physical toll on individual lives. We watch as each one of these characters is physically hurt by the combination of circumstance and the weaknesses that circumstance inspires.
What emerges is a powerful piece of theater that is very much of its time. Loretta Greco’s careful, naturalistic direction serves this production well, as do many of the performances — though Tonye Patano is a particular standout as Cynthia.
Sweat may be a bitter pill to swallow in its portrayal of contemporary American hardship, but Nottage does great work to give us a play that is neither didactic nor melodramatic. It’s a piece that compels us to listen and empathize, and reminds us of the actual lives that exist within voting precincts.
Sweat is playing through October 21 at ACT’s Geary Theater. Find tickets here.