By Tulis McCall
Sweat is a word you don’t think about much. Lynn Nottage has. Thought about it a lot. It is the title of her fine play now at the Public Theater. It also does duty as both a noun and a verb. Sweat is what you do on the factory floor because there is no air conditioning. Sweat is what you have left when management closes its doors to you and the other union workers. The one place in all the world from which sweat seems to be absent is the management office of the factory that is the center of the universe Ms. Nottage has created in Reading Pennsylvania. Reading is in Berks County which kisses Allentown to the northeast, Lancaster to the south and Hershey to the west. It is rust belt. Factory towns where women have equal opportunity to get trapped on the line just like their fathers did.
At the center of the center of this universe is the bar managed by Stan (James Colby) where three friends – Tracey (Johanna Day), Cynthia (Michelle Wilson) and Jesse (Miriam Shor) come to blow their hard earned cash on an unending supply of Jack Daniels. These women drink like there is no tomorrow, or like they wish there wasn’t. Tracey and Cynthia have sons in their 20’s who are also working at the factory. Jesse hasn’t gotten that far in life where being an adult is real possibility. Mostly she drinks until she slumps over, shows up at work on time and drinks some more. Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) has his eye on school and a future with some hope in it. Jason (Will Pullen) has no such ambitions and is willing to ride the conveyor belt to wherever it takes him, presumably to an early retirement with a fat pension.
Retirement, however, is on its way into this depot, and it is not the good kind. There are signs of calamity popping up like kudzu. One co-worker burned sown his house after his wife left. Another committed suicide. Cynthia’s husband Brucie (the most excellent John Earl Jelks) lost his job nearly two years ago and has fallen apart so badly that Cynthia threw him out. Rumors that the factory will be moving to Mexico slide through the conversation and are given short shrift. Closing the factory is unthinkable. Look at all the people who would be out of work. Including but not limited to these five folks. The town would be ruined. It would die and so would they.
These five are united against the idea of the factory closing. Except for the ways in which they are not. When a managerial position is made known to be open to anyone who works the floor, both Cynthia and Tracey apply. When Cynthia gets the job, Tracey cannot stop her mouth from flapping and lets it be known that Tracey got the job because she is black. Something that Tracey appears not to have noticed until circumstances shifted.
And that is exactly what Nottage is telling us. Under the surface of all our good deeds and good intentions there is a well of mistrust and fury. This boiling caldron, as a matter of fact, is so close to the surface that all you have to do is scratch us and we will bleed raging red. In this story it is Tracey who cannot keep her hands off the scab. She pushes and prods and pokes, using the busboy Oscar (Carlo Albán), who she accuses of being Puerto Rican even though he is an American of Columbian heritage, as a fulcrum for her mighty assault. She does not stop until the walls come tumbling down on her and everyone else within range.
The story shifts back and forth between 2000 and 2008. Lynn Nottage lets us see the “after” without giving away the “before” that lead to it. We see the two sons being interviewed by their parole officer Evan (Lance Cody Willilams) as the play begins. The story then rolls out as a slow train-wreck that is both painful to watch and shattering on a visceral level. Ms. Nottage (and director Kate Whorisky) have succeeded in creating lives that connect directly to us in ways that the nightly news or this nauseating political campaign fail to do on any level. These people are us. We are all just a stone’s throw from catastophe. And conversely we are the same distance from redemption. But the latter will take a whole bunch more work.
All that remains to be done to this piece is to take a pair of shears and snip, snip, snip. Ms. Nottage’s writing is so clear and precise that she makes her points quickly. Most do not need to be explained or dissected, especially in the hands of such a solid cast. As it stands now the overwriting undermines the pace of this story, which needs no reigning in or exposition.
SWEAT Written by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Featuring Carlo Albán (Oscar), James Colby (Stan), Khris Davis (Chris), Johanna Day (Tracey), John Earl Jelks (Brucie), Will Pullen (Jason), Miriam Shor (Jessie), Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), and Michelle Wilson (Cynthia).
Scenic Design John Lee Beatty; Costume Design Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design Peter Kaczorowski; Original Music and Sound Design Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Projection Design Jeff Sugg
SWEAT at The Public’s Martinson Theater on Tuesday, through Sunday, December 4. Public Theater Member and Partner tickets, as well as single tickets starting at $85, can be accessed now by calling (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.
The performance schedule is Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. There is an added 7:00 p.m. performance on Monday, November 7 and added 1:00 p.m. performance on Wednesday, November 16 and Wednesday, November 23. There is no 1:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, October 22; no performance on Tuesday, November 8 or Thursday, November 24; and no 7:00 p.m. performance on Sunday, November 20. Post-show talkbacks with the creative team are scheduled to take place immediately following the performances on Wednesday, November 9 and Wednesday, November 16. www.publictheater.org