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Working-Class Values and the American Dream Are on the Line in Sweat

Playwright Lynn Nottage documents the lives of Pennsylvania factory workers.

Mary Mara (Tracey) and Portia (Cynthia) in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, exposes the collapse of the American working class in the new millennium. When backed up against the wall and left with neither income nor hope, people sink into racism almost by reflex. The ramifications of humanity's anger hangs over the play, yet Nottage hints at the power of forgiveness and redemption.

The play opens in 2008. Two hostile men sit in separate rooms with the same parole officer after being released from an eight-year prison sentence. Though they used to be best friends, Jason (Will Hochman) now has a face covered with white-supremacy tattoos, while Chris (Grantham Coleman) has returned from prison emotionally broken. The two men have not seen each other since the events that led to their incarceration. The kind but stalwart officer (Kevin T. Carroll) hopes a reunion between the two will help heal their wounds.

To understand how we got here, Nottage takes us back to the year 2000. Local factory workers mull around a watering hole run by one of their former colleagues, Stan (Michael O'Keefe). Three best friends, Cynthia (Portia), Tracey (Mary Mara), and Jessie (Amy Pietz), pass the time at the bar joking and drinking to obliteration in order to survive the daily grind. Their whole lives have been on the factory line. Their fathers and grandfathers, spouses, and everyone else in this small Pennsylvania town have grown up working on the plant floor, including Tracey and Cynthia's respective sons, Jason and Chris. But the sense of pride they've had over their work is being stripped away as the company begins to disassemble. The union, there to protect the workers, has become overwhelmed and impotent. In the midst of all this, Cynthia, who is African-American, is up for a management role after years of hard work, but her promotion leads to frustration as both the company and her friends use her as a scapegoat. As the months of 2000 pass, the relationships that create the foundation of Sweat begin to unravel and we come to see the events that led Chris and Jason, two best buds with exuberance for their future, to wind up in prison.

Sweat dissects the insidiousness of privilege and entitlement, reminding audiences that there's always someone on a lower plane to blame for your troubles, and there will always be someone who stands to profit from your loss. Though the play is brimming with these rich themes, the execution does not always succeed. With the opening focused on Chris and Jason, but the bulk of the play resting on their mothers, the audience investment from one set of characters to another feels destabilizing. The 2008 sequences also shine a spotlight on Chris and Jason's mysterious crime without revealing that incident until the end, leaving the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop instead of being able to focus on the complex relationships Nottage builds and the reflection of America in civil strife.

Director Lisa Peterson uses television screens to document major world events that led to the collapse of the American factory system, such as the financial crisis and bailout of 2008 and the election of George W. Bush in 2000, so that the audience can travel back to a precarious time not very different from 2018. Thrash rock music from the early millennium sets the mood and evokes tension. Peterson unleashes her actors like pinballs, bouncing off each other, intensifying until they explode in the climax. Unfortunately, that kinetic energy is all on one level, high, so the audience feels distanced from the characters.

Of the performances, Coleman and Hochman remarkably deviate from sullen and washed-out in their 2008 scenes, to rambunctious, youthful, and optimistic in 2000. John Earl Jelks is heartbreaking as Chris's father, a maddened drug addict who has lost the respect of his family. Carroll, in his few scenes as the parole officer, conveys the father figure both boys need to rehabilitate. Pietz portrays Jessie as a lonely woman hiding in a glass of alcohol. Though her two friends clash throughout the play, Pietz appears to harbor most of the blows. Mara plays Tracey as a shrill woman who is looking for others to blame. Beyond that, however, Mara doesn't project the character's humanity, which leads a character meant to propel the story to instead fall flat. Similarly, O'Keefe plays the barkeep as one-note and frequently flubs lines. Portia is stiff as Cynthia, talking at the characters instead of speaking her peace.

The creative elements of the production fare better, with Christopher Barreca's set taking audiences to the neighborhood bar so one can almost smell the stale beer on the floor. Fight director Steve Raskin makes the final confrontation realistic and harrowing. Emilio Sosa's costumes reflect the clothing one would wear to unwind after a day sweating on the line.

Alas, its high production values can only do so much to hide the fact that Sweat leaves the audience feeling more like they've watched an extended soapbox speech rather than having spent time in the flesh-and-blood lives of its characters.

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