Dallas — "Work keeps at bay three great evils: poverty, boredom and vice," Voltaire declares in Candide, his 17th century satire of philosophical optimism.
The famed French philosopher would surely pity the characters in Sweat, Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed with brave physicality by Tim Bond at the Dallas Theater Center’s Kalita Humphreys Theater.
When the local steel plant shuts down in the industrial town of Reading, Penn., the laid-off workers get slapped with the triple whammy of no paycheck, nothing to do all day, and the temptation to drink at the local bar and vent their anger on those desperate "others" who will gladly cross the picket line and work for half the wage their labor once paid. We recognize the landscape immediately. The haves are rich beyond belief. They own the plant, they own the bar and we never see them. The have-nots are fighting for a sliver of the pie.
The play is mostly set in the George W. Bush era, 2000 and 2008, when big business was moving their production to Mexico and other countries with cheap labor and no unions. Still, Sweat has a timeless appeal because deep and loving personal friendships are at stake, together with a whole town's economic viability. Right now, America's middle class is shrinking, and we are constantly bombarded by divisive political rhetoric and ugly racial distrust. What can be done?
Sweat evokes a swelling catharsis, the emptying out of pity and fear in a sense of wonderment that human beings can absorb so much loss and violence and still find a glimmer of love and redemption. That's classic tragedy by Aristotle's definition. Nottage, the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice (the first was for Ruined), offers us a modern-day glimpse of that theatrical experience, gleaned from months of on-the-ground research in Reading, one of America's poorest cities. The fictional men and women in Sweat speak in a powerful language, both vernacular and poetic.
The story starts in 2008, where a case-hardened parole officer (a tough but caring Tyrees Allen) meets separately with two young men just out of jail. Jason (Kyle Igneczi) is a hothead with disfiguring tattoos on his face who calls the officer the N-word when questioned about his swollen black eye. The other is a pensive African-American named Chris (DTC Brierley Acting Company member Ace Anderson), clutching a bible and haltingly explaining how he's trying to come to grips with life after serving time for a shameful crime he committed with his old pal Jason.
We don't know why Chris and Jason went to prison, not yet. The bright lights dim on William Bloodgood's detailed, intimate set design, the circular stage revolves, and we're back in the year 2000 in a neighborhood bar in Reading where blue collar workers come to drink and grouse about the latest factory closings or celebrate a birthday with old buddies. Stan (stalwart Jon Shaver) is a friendly, upbeat bartender despite a machine accident that disabled him for life, back in the days when he worked in the factory.
We meet the regulars right away and can't help but want to pull up a stool to have a drink and get to know these people better. At the center of the play are two strong women who've worked together for years and know what it is to sweat out a living on the factory floor.
Cynthia (Brierley member Liz Mikel) is an African-American woman with an easy laugh and a warm hug for everybody, even her estranged, drug-addled husband (a bewildered Kenajuan Bentley) who got messed up after he lost his job to a plant shutdown. Tracey (Brierley member Sally Nystuen Vahle) is a tough-as-nails widow bent on having a good time once the they punch out at the factory. Their teenage sons, Jason and Chris, are lifelong pals, too, and are following their moms straight into the factory after high school.
Tracey's proud of her German heritage and tells a touching story about her artisan grandfather's callused hand, back in the day when honest work and craftsmanship demanded respect. She loves nothing better than knocking back a few beers, laughing about getting old and dancing to the jukebox with Cynthia and their work pal Jessie (woozy, red-eyed Barbra Wengerd), a sweet drunk who spends most of the play passed out a table or tearing up recalling better times.
In Nottage's working class world, racism is tamed by a shared work ethic and wages ample enough to party on payday and take an occasional trip to Atlantic City. Of course, nobody even looks at Sam's dishwasher Oscar (Brierley member Christopher Llewyn Ramirez), a wary young Latino hired to scrape gum from under the tables and remove the occasional drunk patron. Oscar can't get a foot in the factory door because he's regarded a foreigner, even though he was born in Reading.
Rumors about replacing old machines with automated ones heighten everybody's already shaky sense of job security. Cynthia and Tracey both apply for a management job when they hear the position will be filled by somebody with experience on the floor, although cynical Tracey thinks it's pointless.
Fear and anxiety continue to build, as more jobs are threatened. Do years of solid work and loyalty mean nothing to management? How far must you go for your friends on the picket line? And who are your friends, anyway? As unemployment rises, displaced workers become dysfunctional and so do the social bonds that hold them together. We know from long experience, that in this incendiary atmosphere all hell can break loose, in a church, in a school or in a bar.
What's terrific about the play is the empathy we can't help but feel for the workers, especially those like Cynthia and her son Chris who are trying to rise above the assembly line to a less exhausting, more dependable livelihood. Yet, we also understand the anger and defeat of other characters who lose their very identity in their loss of work.
Bond and his first-class ensemble energize this talky play with strong physical performances and movement. The bar is never static. Somebody is stumbling comically to an exit or dancing like a madwoman to Michael Keck's original music and evocative soundscape. Fight coordinator U. Jonathan Toppo deserves a special shout-out for the shocking realism of scenes erupting in sudden violence and its dazed aftermath.
Vahle's Tracey is a strident, funny, in-your-face Rosie the Riveter, wiggling her butt and shouldering up to the bar to turn down Stan's harmless overtures. Tracey is also a caustic bitch from hell, trapped in her own blame game when she loses all semblance of civility and her savage cry for revenge triggers unpredictable destruction. Even then, we feel pity for this crazed, lost woman.
Mikel is a kind and understanding Cynthia, and we feel for her when she's dealing with her needy druggie husband, but this long-suffering black woman needs a bit more down-and-dirty gumption, more spirited pushback when confronted by old friends turned new enemies.
From the time he walks on the stage, Igneczi's Jason is a trembling volcano looking for a place to erupt. Whether he's sulking in a police station, or horsing around with his pal Chris, his body and face look tense and ready to react at the slightest prompt. Jason's scary because, like his mom, he's just barely in control of himself. He might do anything.
Anderson's Chris, as the crazy guy's calm friend, has his best moments in the small scenes with his addict father, when the son's body shifts from a hostile stance and his face moves from disgust to tenderness as he gives his old man some money and a hurried hug.
Ramirez' s Oscar is so good he's almost completely invisible as he goes about his bar duties. Then when he does speak, you see the steady fire in his dark eyes and the deliberate set of his sturdy shoulders. Oscar comes from a long line of survivors himself, and he's not going away.
Some of the backstory speeches the characters deliver sound a little like docu-drama, but for the most part we're invested enough in these people to care about how they got to this spot. Most importantly, Sweat serves up a slice-of-life drama that helps us see with greater clarity the personal hardship of the luckless unemployed and devalued workers in our country. They reflect the demographic of certain Trump supporters, fed up with losing jobs to other countries and cheap labor at home. Here, at least, we can feel their pain and see where such sentiment might originate. We might also wonder where their votes might go next time.
See Sweat. Take your confused and angry brother-in-law. Stay for the talk-back—and keep talking.