SWEAT couldn't be more timely. Here's a play about the sort of folk who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump, the men and women who no longer trust any aspect of the system. The plant owners are asking for 60% pay cuts or they'll move to Mexico, which they are already stealthily starting to do. The unions do nothing except offer supermarket vouchers to factory workers who have been locked out. George W. Bush's face is on the television screen (it is interesting that it is Bush's face we see--the play is set in 2000, the end of Bill Clinton's era of prosperity), but we don't hear his voice. Politicians don't care about Reading, Pennsylvania, the depressed area where SWEAT takes place. Lynn Nottage's play has powerful moments, yet there is something that rings false about the play. The characters are far more sententious than they would be. Nottage went to Reading and interviewed a number of people. The result is that the play seems to hover between realistic drama and docudrama. In docudrama, in which actors present the voices of real people, we expect paragraphs rather than sentences. In realistic drama, characters don't constantly give speeches to each other. SWEAT is also a barroom drama, a genre that seems to allow for more speechifying (think of O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, in which characters speak in very long paragraphs). The second act, in which tensions come to a violent head, is far more effective than the talky first act. I kept asking myself during the first act, "Where is this going?"
Nottage's play focuses on the friendship of three women who work together on a factory assembly line. The sons of two of the women also work on the line. This is the expected life of workers at this plant. As Tracey, the meanest and seemingly toughest of the women, tells us, her father worked on the line, and now her son does. The jobs are family legacies. Racism is not an issue here, Tracey's best friend, Cynthia, is Black; Tracey's son Jason, and Cynthia's son, Chris, are best friends. Yet racial difference is an issue. For all their closeness, Tracey and Cynthia, Jason and Chris, see their positions in their world very differently. Chris wants to get away from the plant and go to college. The men in this world are already beaten down. Tracey's husband is dead; Cynthia's husband, already out of work, walks around in a drug-induced haze. Stan, the bartender, is maimed from an accident on the assembly line.
There is a more crucial racial-ethnic element in the play. Oscar, American-born but of Colombian descent, quietly goes about his menial tasks in the bar. Tracey, the most voluble and least sympathetic of the characters, calls him a Puerto Rican and tells him that work in the factory is not for his kind of people. Tracey proudly tells him that her people have been in reading since 1920. To Tracey, Oscar is not an American. The play moves toward violence (egged on by Tracey), when Oscar takes a job as a "scab" at the factory that has locked out Tracey, her son and her friends.
The action in 2000 is framed by events eight years later when we see the fallout from the violence in the bar and further economic depression in Reading. In SWEAT it is the whites who cannot cope with change, who fester from their lack of empowerment. The subtext of the play is the necessity of adaptability. Anger only backfires.
There are powerful moments in SWEAT, but their are flaws. The framing scenes of Jason and Chris talking to their parole officer are out of television drama. This sort of post-prison counseling is done so well on RECTIFY (one of the best shows on television), that here these scenes seem formulaic. The socio-economic reversals at the end aren't totally convincing. I found Tracey such a monster that I had no sympathy for her.
The ensemble couldn't be better. It is impossible to single anyone out. Kate Whoriskey has given the play as much of a sense of authenticity as the script allows. John Lee Beatty's set is totally convincing.