Melissa Merli/review | 'Sweat' reflects rage, ruin of blue-collar workers

Melissa Merli/review | 'Sweat' reflects rage, ruin of blue-collar workers

URBANA — After playwright Lynn Nottage read in 2011 a New York Times article about Reading, Pa., population 88,000, being the poorest city of its size in the country, she set out to get to know the town.

Over two years, often four times a month, the Columbia University professor traveled to the deindustrialized town, to meet with and collect compelling stories from community members, many of whom had held well-paid union jobs at factories which had shuttered or moved elsewhere, mainly Mexico.

The result: her powerful 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Sweat,"which opened Thursday evening at the Station Theatre in Urbana.

In scenes jumping from 2008 to 2000 and back again, the well-structured two-act follows a group of long-time friends who struggle with their overturned lives, and each other, after losing their jobs — jobs that their fathers and grandfathers had worked and that had left the earlier generations with comfortable retirements.

The gripping drama opens in '08 on separate talks between a parole officer and two of his wards, one black and one white. But most of the action takes place in 2000 in a working-class bar, where friends gather to celebrate birthdays and eventually talk of rumors of layoffs and then strikes and the loss of their livelihood.

The anger mounts, but Nottage remains nonjudgmental of her characters as most of their lives nosedive seemingly in all directions. The orange glow of a never-played jukebox adds warmth and light to the intimate tavern setting, and to the play that one theater-goer said left her feeling "drenched" afterward.

Even though you feel the pain, "Sweat" has humor and pithy lines that might have you nodding or gasping in agreement. The well-written dialogue smacks of real life and shows but does not tell of blue-collar laborers enraged and ravaged financially and emotionally by political and economic forces beyond their control.

"Sweat" also addresses race and immigration, the latter mainly via Oscar, a Colombian-American portrayed by the excellent Luis Alcantara, who works in the bar and later, during the lock-out of employees at the steel-tubing factory, becomes a scab, crossing the picket lines for $11 an hour.

"They've got us fighting for scraps," says Tracey, who had 28 years in on the assembly line and has a son on parole. She was best friends with Cynthia (Station newcomer Evelyn Reynolds), who had two years less on the floor and is promoted over Tracey to the position of warehouse supervisor.

As Tracey, local theater veteran Chris Clevidence Taber is spectacular, as a friend of mine put it after the play. She's bold, impassioned and spot-on in what might be her best performance among many strong ones. (Taber is drama director at the Franklin STEAM Academy in Champaign.)

Kvn Tajzea is equally impressive in his smaller part as the drug-addled Brucie, who once worked at the textile mill and was married to Cynthia. (The Mathew Green-directed cast is uniformly good.)

The rational, calm center of "Sweat" is the bartender Stan, who is deftly portrayed by Matt Hester. "Nostalgia is a disease, and I'm not going to be one of the guys who surrenders to it," says Stan, who advises some of his newly unemployed younger clientele to leave Reading. Yet even the amiable and perceptive Stan, who had a factory job before a work injury left him with a limp, is caught up in the turmoil.

Though "Sweat" is viewed as a look at the working class that deserted the Democratic Party for Trump, the play actually opened in 2015, before the presidential election, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which along with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., commissioned the piece. "Sweat" never mentions Trump, but another president shows up in short TV broadcasts in the bar.

In 2016, the off-Broadway Public Theater in New York presented "Sweat," and then it moved to Broadway, picking up a number of awards, among them Nottage's second Pulitzer for drama. Her first came in 2009 for "Ruined."

After "Sweat" was mounted, Nottage and some of her crew returned to Reading to work on and create "This is Reading," an art project involving the community. It was presented there last summer.

In recent news, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit National will offer, starting next month, free performances of "Sweat" in five upper Midwest states, in 18 communities that were hard hit by NAFTA and other forces as was Reading. Illinois is not on the list — too bad, because the same forces that hit Reading occurred in Danville. (The Goodman Theatre in Chicago has included "Sweat"in its 2018-'19 season.)

Please note that the Station Theatre recently changed the starting time of its plays to 7:30 p.m. after having had 8 p.m. curtain times for decades. I almost missed the performance Thursday, and I would have been the lesser for it.

Melissa Merli is a retired News-Gazette staff writer.

Topics (1):Theater