At the moral center of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat is the bartender Stan, a tolerant observer of his community’s ethnic, racial, marital, and labor rifts. In Elena Araoz’s taut, minimalistic staging at People’s Light, William Zielinski inhabits the role with such cheerful persuasiveness that the play’s denouement acquires added force.
Based on Nottage’s 2011-13 research into the deindustrialization of Reading — chosen, she says, because it was the poorest city of its size in the United States — Sweat is now the second-most produced play in the country. It’s not hard to see why. Nottage probed the conjoined economic and cultural grievances of marginalized workers with acuity and empathy years before many of those workers morphed into Trump voters.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gets a drubbing in Sweat for sending blue-collar jobs to Mexico. One character expresses nostalgia for an era “when if you worked with your hands people respected you for it,” which recalls a campaign mantra of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) about “the dignity of work.” Nottage’s concerns also include the fruitlessness of scapegoating “the other” and the importance of community.
The People’s Light production was my third, after the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s solid season opener and the passionate 2017 Broadway staging. Sweat benefits immensely from the intimacy of the Steinbright Stage, where the audience, arrayed on three sides of set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s industrial not-chic bar, feels as though it is eavesdropping. María-Cristina Fusté’s lighting design accomplishes the necessary scene changes.
Nottage skillfully interweaves two narratives, from 2000 and 2008. Sweat begins near the story’s end, with two onetime friends conversing alternately with their parole officer (Akeem Davis). Jason (David Kenner), who is white, remains belligerent, his face a mask of Aryan Brotherhood tattoos. Chris (Brandon J. Pierce), who is black, has found religion in prison, but, he, too, is struggling with reentry.
Tracey (Monica Steuer) and Cynthia (Lisa Strumm) are the mothers of Jason and Chris, respectively, and the two women are also fast friends — until they become rivals for a management job at Olstead’s, the steel-tubing factory where all four work. Tracey and Cynthia gather at Stan’s bar for regular birthday celebrations, along with the perpetually inebriated Jessie (Teri Lamm).
Cynthia is separated from Chris’ father, Brucie (Bowman Wright). Locked out of his factory, Brucie has become a junkie, a fate that foreshadows Reading’s gathering dark. Catalyzing the climactic conflict is Oscar (Dakota Granados), a Latino bar hand whose American dream is to join the crew at Olstead’s.
The People’s Light ensemble is strong, with Pierce conveying Chris’ smarts and humor, and Strum and Wright excellent as his feuding parents. The one major misstep is the miscasting of Steuer in the key role of Tracey. Her slight foreign accent is baffling, considering the character’s pride in her deep Reading roots, and her loose-limbed physicality seems to belie Tracey’s growing tension and rage. Another quibble: Nathan Leigh’s sound design, which includes TV snippets denoting the passage of time, could be clearer.
Sweat is a close cousin to another provocative show about the impact of deindustrialization: Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit-based Skeleton Crew, staged last season by People’s Light (which will mount Morisseau’s Mud Row this summer). To my mind, Nottage has written the more elegant play. See it and judge for yourself.