What a journey Lynn Nottage’s Sweat has had. When this gorgeously incisive play about heartbreak and social collapse in the rust-belt opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, it drew comparisons to John Steinbeck—deserved ones. No one has written more knowledgeably or empathetically about loss of dignity and rootedness during deindustrialization and the Great Recession than Nottage. And this play’s potency is compounded by the rarity of such realistically conceived blue-collar workers on the American stage in recent decades—a much-maligned and misunderstood demographic it would behoove all of us to know better.
After Oregon and a run at Arena Stage in Washington (which co-commissioned it), Sweat opened at the Public Theater five days before the presidential election and was instantly acclaimed for its supposedly prescient analysis of Trumpism. Nottage and her director Kate Whoriskey had been visiting Reading, PA, and interviewing people there since 2012 (when it was named the country’s poorest city), and Sweat’s action is set in 2000 and 2008, well before Trump’s campaign. Nevertheless, the livid anger and disaffection of the play’s hardscrabble characters felt like a ready explanation of Trump’s horrifying rallies to the clueless New York theaterati.
And the latest news is that Sweat is moving to Broadway. It will open at Studio 54 in the spring when its next wave of reaction will be steeped not in worried anticipation but actual experience of a Trump administration . . . heaven help us. I’ll refrain from prognosticating about that, except to hope that the Steinbeck comparisons grow a bit paler since The Grapes of Wrath appeared on the cusp of a new world war.
Everyone should see Nottage’s play. The story alone won’t explain why as it too easily seems like a dry fieldwork research project. A group of coworkers at a Reading manufacturing plant are pressured with layoffs due to both NAFTA and the recession eight years later. One worker is disabled in an avoidable accident. Another is promoted from line worker to manager and given the job of locking out her friends. Still another, of Hispanic background but born in town, is frozen out of the union for years and then damned for scabbing during the lockout. Race hovers and scorches everything but never rises to the main cause of the several crises. The climax involves an unforgivable crime committed by two young friends, one black one white, in a moment of terrible desperation.
Whoriskey deserves much credit here because her production sears these events into the heart like some diabolical home movie—grainily vivid and painfully familiar. The acting is uniformly honest and sharp with particularly fine performances by Carlo Albán as the busboy-turned-scab, James Colby as his gimpy boss, Will Pullen and Kris Davis as the youngster friends, and Michelle Wilson and Miriam Shor as their wonderfully gnarly mothers.
For me, though, what stirs and sticks most in the end is the act of radical empathy the play represents. Our country is more dangerously divided at the moment than at any point since the Civil War, we’re told every day that preserving the fabric of our society depends on both sides emerging from their bubbles and listening to one another, and here is a play that represents three years of loving, immersive listening in the downtrodden heartland by a bona-fide member of the urban elite. That commitment is the reason why it barks and sings and laughs with truth. When a sensitive author puts in the time as Nottage has we will follow her past all those banal and unsolvable questions of blame and move on with her to ponder the larger and graver matter of what we owe one another as neighbors, countrymen, brethren and friends.
Photo: Joan Marcus