Playwright Lynn Nottage has an ear for the way in which people talk, and in addition, she has sensitivity and understanding about contemporary issues. With “Sweat” she plunges into the world of workers whose jobs disappear and who live in fear and desperation. Although the play, presented by the Public Theater and set in Reading, Pennsylvania, takes place between 2000 and 2008, what happens couldn’t be more timely.
We are teased at the beginning by parallel interrogations by a parole officer (Lance Coadie Williams) of two ex-prisoners who are having trouble coping with their lives. It is obvious that each has been involved in something terribly wrong. In the flashbacks we see the back story dramatically unfold to devastating effect.
Most of the play occurs in a bar, designed with an accurate look by John Lee Beatty. It is tended by Stan (James Colby), who long ago suffered an on-the-job injury at the steel-tubing factory where those who frequent the bar work, and could no longer continue employment there. The bar is kind of an after-work clubhouse, a relief from the stress of the jobs, and as we find out, the threat of unemployment in light of the trend toward moving jobs abroad. They are loyal union members, and aghast when they face a demand for a sharp pay cut by the company or a lockout. There is anger when it is revealed that Oscar (Carlo Alban), a nice-guy Colombian and helper at the bar, is interested in bettering his lot with a non-union job offered in a company recruiting announcement.
The lives we see are complicated. There is outspoken Tracey (Johanna Day), who is celebrating her birthday when we first meet her. She is close friends with Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), an African-American woman who has a son, Chris (Khris Davis). Cynthia has broken with her drug-addicted husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks), who wants her to take him back. Tracey’s son, Jason (Will Pullen), Chris’s friend, tends toward being a hothead.
This collective working class depiction takes a sharp turn after Cynthia wins a promotion that both she and Tracey competed for, and there is resentment between them, especially when Cynthia reluctantly reveals news of impending plant firings and urges the others to take the company’s lower pay offer. Jason blows his stack over the prospect of Oscar getting a job at the plant and what follows demonstrates how a sudden blow-up can tragically affect lives forever.
Director Kate Whoriskey is on the same wavelength as Nottage, and rarely lets up on the tension that brews. There is lots of shouting by the impassioned cast members, and the heat level of the play is high. We observe the kind of fears and anger that Donald Trump exploited in his speeches during the election campaign brawl. Lynn Nottage, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “Ruined,” clearly has insight to the characters about whom she is writing, and also is well-attuned to the situations in which they find themselves. “Sweat” is very powerful drama. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212- 967-7555. Reviewed November 14, 2016