“Sweat” -- a New York premiere from Pulitzer Winner Lynn Nottage (“Ruined”) -- is an anxiety-inducing drama about floor workers at a mill in Reading, Pennsylvania, and how they cope with changes in American manufacturing.
Most scenes are set in a rundown bar, where the workers gather after each grueling shift. The bar has a neon “Yuengling Lager” sign in one window. I happened to see “Sweat” the same day the owner of the Pennsylvania-based craft brewery made headlines for endorsing GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
I mention that minor detail because it underscores how timely and frustrating Nottage’s play, first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, really is: The story here -- of oppressed workers, class rage and corporate bean-counting -- is suspenseful, but hardly new, and certainly a fixture of our daily election season media diet.
“Sweat” is bookended by scenes set in 2008, in which two young men, Chris and Jason (Will Pullen and Khris Davis, both excellent), are having difficulty adjusting to life after release from prison. Most of the play, directed by Kate Whoriskey, is a flashback set eight years earlier, that explains how the young men got into trouble in the first place.
Chris and Jason have mothers on the line at Olstead’s, the fictional Berks County mill that’s a fulcrum for the narrative. The young men also work there themselves: Olstead’s is a stand-in for the paternal employer who so many generations of Northeasterners grew up assuming would just always be there, with job security and, then, a pension.
The flashback introduces us to the boys' mothers, friends for nearly 30 years. Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Tracey (Johanna Day), have settled into a routine of exhausting days at the plant and nights at the bar, and all of it is thrown into chaos when it becomes clear the owner of the business is looking to the union for tradeoffs.
Day’s stubborn and xenophobic character represents the Reading locals who pine for the days of the prosperous main street and immigrants of only German (or other white) extraction. The actress (“Proof”) gets one note to hammer away on, but manages to slide enough warmth into her performance to keep from being the caricature the script represents her as.
As Cynthia, Wilson is determined to make the most of the small opportunities for advancement available to her. She convincingly depicts a woman torn between loyalty to her friends and helping them to adjust to new realities none of them can alter.
Also in the heated milieu are Stan (James Colby), a former line worker who took over the local bar after an injury ended his career, and Oscar (Carlo Albán), the Colombian barback who represents the kind of laborer some Americans feel their livelihoods threatened by.
All the characters are honorable people who want to put in an honest day's work and be respected accordingly, though they're given varying degrees of likability. “Sweat” is a remarkably nimble and lucid drama, and for that reason alone I’m probably guilty of having expected profound wisdom -- instead, it left me more upset than enlightened. All these good questions, with no easy answers.
“Sweat,” through Dec. 4 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $85 and up. Call 212-967-7555.
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