By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
"Nostalgia's a disease." Sweat, Lynn Nottage's strong new play about work and the lack thereof, is drenched in the longing for the good old days, the way it used to be in small-city America when people worked hard and felt secure in their jobs. But nostalgia turns toxic, and the corrosive despair of the American Dream turns nightmare.
With factories and mills shrinking and then closing, stranding families in dire financial situations, alcoholism and drug addiction become the delusive solution. These are decent people who have turned desperate and violent.
Like her earlier play, Ruined, Sweat is based on extensive interviews. Nottage spent time with people in Reading, PA, and their voices are shaped into forceful dialogue. But rather than a straightforward, chronological narrative, the play begins near its end with two young men, just out of prison after eight years. What did they do? The suspense of the plot lies in our waiting for the answer which when it comes is predictable, and therefore believable, but also therefore theatrically disappointing.
The two parolees are white Jason (Will Pullen), dangerously wired, and African-American Chris (Khris Davis—often on Philadelphia stages), calmer, smarter, more ambitious. They have been friends forever, just as their mothers have: widowed Tracy (Johanna Day in an outstanding performance), and Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), married to Brucie (John Earl Jelks). They meet for drinks in their neighborhood bar, tended by Stan (James Colby) and his part-time help, Oscar (Carlo Alban). They drink, they celebrate birthdays, they gossip.
And as their circumstances worsen, they get loud and they get angry, and they get mean; betrayals and bigotry become the order of the day.
Kate Whoriskey's direction is purposefully repetitious—these people are stuck-- but despite its purpose, it begins to feel repetitious. And there's something wrong when the highlight of the production is its ugliest, most violent scene (much credit to fight director U. Jonathan Toppo).
Just by chance the day before I saw Sweat I saw the excellent UArts production of Pocatello, Samuel Hunter's similar—if quieter and less explosive—portrait of a small city shriveling up. In both plays, the families who have lived there for generations provide a microcosm of the larger problem: "Grandpa built that house." And the refrain in both plays is, "I'm sorry."
As one character in Sweat says, "The writing's on the wall and we're still out here pretending we can't read"; it's hard not to hear that line in light of recent political events.