Theater often wears blinders when it comes to stories that encompass the plight of blue collar America. New York City’s stages are filled with new plays featuring college-educated upper middle class urbanites sipping rosé and opining about class and race. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, now running at the indispensable Gamm Theatre, gives voice to the laborers abandoned by their unions, their government, and, ultimately, their own community.
When Sweat made its Broadway debut in 2017, the New York Times called it “topical.” Five years later, I’d call it urgent. With the play set in Reading, Pennsylvania – one of the key battleground states in the midterm elections – watching it just two wakeups away from voting day is a stark reminder of how little we’ve progressed in the last five years.
The time-traveling play opens in 2008, with two young men, Jason and Chris, separately meeting with their parole officer. We flash back to the year 2000 to learn exactly why these former best friends spent time in prison.
Reading is a factory town and the majority of its citizens “work the line,” just like their parents and grandparents before them. In 2000, the tentacles of NAFTA were beginning to choke the life out of the very unions that brought manufacturing workers solidly into the middle class.
At the local watering hole (a keenly observed set design by Jessica Hill Kidd), the lives of three friends – Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie – who are also co-workers at the local factory, unfold. As the whiskey flows, they share their stories, filled with the pride in getting their union cards and doing hard physical labor in their quest to make a decent living.
These people are workers, we are reminded. It’s in their blood. Indeed, Tracey and Cynthia both have sons, and these boys, like their parents and grandparents before them, are newly minted union members.
A palpable anger simmers just below the surface of the characters. After a lifetime spent as laborers, their broken spirits are reflected through their broken bodies; barkeep Stan literally went lame because of malfunctioning equipment to which management turned a blind eye. But these soul- and body-crushing jobs form the foundation of each character’s identity. The impersonal word deindustrialization has real human consequences.
So when Cynthia gets promoted to a management position, the bonds of friendship begin to strain; a looming lockout pushes them to their breaking point. As the situation at the factory turns more Lord of the Flies, finger pointing and blame gaming commence. Friendships disintegrate, racism is revealed, and xenophobia becomes endemic. As the workers find their stability under siege, the bonds that once held this community together fray and then snap under the pressure. No one is spared from the devastation.
Playwright Nottage packs a lot into this dense play, and The Gamm’s cast is up to the challenge. Directed with a steady hand by Rachel Walshe, the events leading to one staggering moment of violence unfold with precision pacing.
The ensemble cast is wonderful, a mix of Gamm regulars and newcomers. As Tracey, Casey Seymour Kim gives a spit-fire performance of a woman living on a knife’s edge. Kym Gomes brings a sensitive, layered performance to Cynthia, a Black woman who worked hard to overcome institutionalized racism only to lose everything she strived for in the process. Kelly Seigh brings levity to the proceedings as the hard-drinking Jessie, a former flower child whose dream to walk the hippie trail was waylaid by a career at the factory.
Erik Robles is a stand out as Chris, the young man caught up in a violent moment that changes the trajectory of his promising life. The recent URI grad is a chameleon, shape shifting from youthful bravado to a broken ex-con seeking salvation. Conor Delaney as Jason gives a heart wrenching performance as a young man who needs to figure out what, exactly, feeds his anger and why.
Jermaine L. Peterson – who resembles a young Wendell Pierce – is terrific as the parole officer. Jamie José Hernández imbues a defiant Oscar – constantly overlooked by the barflies – with a quiet strength. Jason Quinn, who plays Cynthia’s despondent husband who falls into addiction, finds humanity in a character that could easily fall into cliché. Steve Kidd gives a gasp-worthy performance as Stan.
It feels reductionist to simply call Nottage’s play one about the plight of the vanishing middle class because, as Walshe’s production astutely points out, it is much more complicated. Race and class coexist in this uncomfortable silence, much like they do in our everyday lives, and a feeling of hopelessness prevails until the very last scene when the young men are faced with the consequences of their actions. The play is a bitter pill, to be certain, but like all good theater, it’s a story that lingers well after the stage lights dim.
Sweat runs at The Gamm through November 27. GammTheatre.org
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