Review: ‘Sweat’ is a pitch-perfect look at a factory town’s decline

By ERIC SUTPHIN

For The Valley News

Published: 03-15-2023 7:49 PM

It’s 2008 and a tough but caring parole officer named Evan (played by Greg Alvarez Reid) meets with two recent parolees. Chris (Christopher B. Portley) is a mild mannered young Black man who once aspired to study education in college. Jason (Robert David Grant) is a seething young white man with face tattoos and a venomous tongue. Their offense isn’t revealed at first, and the mystery of it advances the narrative of the tumultuous events that lead up to it.

“Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play consistently hammers viewers with hard truths. Flawlessly directed by Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, a new production of “Sweat” at Northern Stage offers a nuanced look at the repercussions of economic decline in America’s Rust Belt. Set in Reading, Pa., a fading manufacturing city, the story of this multi-racial, working class community is told with empathy and compassion. Exercise discretion when bringing children as there are profanity, violence and adult themes.

The action unfolds in a dive bar where workers from a local steel tubing manufacturing plant hang out. Stan, the bartender (Matthew Henerson), left the factory after he sustained a debilitating injury. At one point, he unironically proclaims it was “the best thing that ever happened to him.” Stan’s stories establish a colorful sense of history about the town and its residents.

The barroom banter is natural and delivered with an utterly convincing casualness. Co-workers Tracey (Anne Torsiglieri) and Cynthia (Stori Ayers) are captivating to watch. They have excellent chemistry and their dialogue, with its inside jokes and asides, perfectly portrays a friendship of more than 20 years. Their relationship parallels that of their sons, Chris and Jason, who are just beginning their careers as factory workers.

The play takes place between 2000 and 2008. Melanie Chen Cole’s sound coupled with David L. Arsenault’s set design ground the action in place and time. The bar feels familiar, complete with rickety stools and a jukebox emblazoned with a Reading Beer logo. The scene transitions are scored with soundbites of news headlines and popular music. George W. Bush announcing his candidacy for the presidency interspersed with Destiny’s Child; news about NAFTA cut with Eminem paints a vivid picture of Y2K America.

The cast’s performance is pitch perfect. The characters are complex and the dialogue seamlessly weaves in racial and labor relationships. You get the sense that worker solidarity runs deeper than race in this community. This isn’t to say that race isn’t a factor. When Cynthia (who is Black) gets promoted to supervisor, Tracey becomes resentful. She slanders Cynthia by telling people the only reason she got promoted was because she’s Black. “I’m not prejudiced,” Tracey reminds us, in denial about her own racism.

As a supervisor, Cynthia is now privy to information about the company’s future. Tracey finds a hiring notice for factory jobs written in Spanish. Tension builds during a sullied birthday celebration when Cynthia is pressured to disclose that the factory plans to bring in “temp” workers to “squeeze out” the union.

Cynthia’s ex-husband Brucie (Greg Alvarez Reid) foreshadows events to come. A year prior, he and his union were locked out of their factory when the company began outsourcing jobs. Eventually, the workers were all laid off and Brucie became addicted to heroin.

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Addiction is sort of the elephant in the room. Brucie is confronted about his drug use, and a resident barfly Jessie (Anna O’Donoghue) is often shown inebriated. The fact is that everyone in the bar drinks heavily, whether employed, striking or laid off. Half the characters use opiates. Intoxication is the catalyst for the multiple catastrophes that erupt.

“Sweat” gets to the root of the complex ecosystem of social relations in a factory town. The play illustrates how resentment at systems (companies, for example) is often displaced onto marginalized groups. Oscar the barback (Marcus Raye Pérez) whose family is from Colombia, recently took a part time job at the factory during the lockout. He’s assailed by slurs, and spit at.

The second act begins in 2008, where the characters are at loose ends, then flashes back to three months into the lockout. Cynthia, Tracey, Jessie, Jason, Chris and Stan are all in the bar. Jessie and Tracy accuse Cynthia of colluding with the company. Tracey exclaims “I’m a worker, that’s what I’ve done since I was a kid!” It’s a telling statement that gets to the core of the play’s premise. Worker is these folks’ primary identity. Their social lives, families, and livelihoods are built around the factory.

When that identity is stripped, the community falls apart. All of the pain, resentment, fear and rage come to a head. We discover how Jason and Chris landed in prison. When the lights came back on, I could see tear-stained cheeks and furrowed brows all around me. There’s a lesson in basic human decency embedded in the play’s final moments, but it's frankly too mild a balm to cool the sting.

Northern Stage’s production of “Sweat” runs through March 26 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. For tickets ($19 to $69) or more information go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

Eric Sutphin is a freelance writer. He lives in Plainfield.

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