A Dry Production for SWEAT
The words “the first major play of the Trump Era” may confuse and alarm some people.
Lynn Nottage, known for her powerful writing that serves voices to marginalized people, visited Reading, PA after hearing that it had reached the highest poverty rate in the US in 2010. Visiting the area, and hearing their stories, she came across the middle class America that had become disenchanted with a government and politics that had seemed to leave them forgotten on America’s Dust Belt. This working middle-class, blue collar America is one of the biggest factors that lent our current president his win, and many associate his voters and supporters with a certain stereotype. You know of the stereotype: those that wear MAGA hats, those that want to build a wall, those clamoring for white supremacy, those that have an extreme distaste for immigrants, the list can go on and on. However, these are stereotypes, and while many of the citizens that ally themselves with President Trump and the right can be found to be racist and rash, Nottage casts a wider lens on this part of the American population in her play, SWEAT. These types of people did not all of a sudden sprout from the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections, they were alive and in the heart of America, tired of companies not treating them with the respect they deserve. There is a legitimate fear and bitterness that stirs in the hearts of these American people, and Nottage’s writing forces us to look at what happens when companies and CEOS turn their employees on one another, tearing even whole communities apart. They are left with scars and pain, and look around them to blame when they are at the lowest instead of looking up at the ones who had created and stoked this active burning of Americans. This is what people mean by “the first major play of the Trump era;” Nottage’s SWEAT manages to cast a light on blue collar Americans during a tumultuous decade, and assesses the appropriate fear and pain that they felt, like any other person would have felt.
Director Joyce Maltby leads TAG’s latest production in their season at The Brad Powell Theatre, captaining the helm of a very important piece of theatre.
SWEAT starts in 2008, as the Bush administration is ready to come to a close, with a parole officer, Evan (Vernon Fowler), addressing two young men separately. The men were recently released from prison, and both find it difficult in their own ways to open up. Jason (Grey Buxton) is white, sporting a shiner amidst an Eagles beanie and white supremacy tattoos on his face. Chris (Jarren Amian) is black and tells Evan of his newfound savior, the Bible. Jason and Chris were the best of friends at one point, and the audience is left to wonder how the men got to this point in their lives, and to another extent, what had landed them in prison. We are taken to the year 2000, as the Bush administration is ready to take off, into a bar that the locals of Reading, PA frequent. Run by former factor worker Stan (Steven Katz), the local watering hole is a place many of the steel factory works in town call their second home, often ending up there after a hard day’s work. Here, we meet three friends who work at the factory- Cynthia (Monica Knight), Tracey (Becky Maltby), and Jessie (Melinda Maltby). Jessie drinks a bit harder than her friends, and thus can be found slumped at a table while Cynthia and Tracey regale their days, memories, and praise their sons, Jason and Chris, both of whom also work at the factory and are bright, youthful, and full of dreams. Oscar (Brandon Caban) is Stan’s Colombian-American barback, assisting Stan evening to evening, content with being quiet and watching things unfold in front of him. Finally, we are introduced to Brucie (James Roberts), Cynthia’s estranged husband who has been long out of work after one of the city’s many crackdowns on unions, a chilling foreshadowing of the future to come. Struggling with a drug addiction, he often turns to Cynthia and his son Chris for money and news, trying his best to get out of a web that the play makes clear he has no chance escaping.
The audience follows these avatars of the town as the decade progresses, and drama unfolds when Cynthia gets a promotion above Tracey and Jessie. All three were childhood friends, and had started their work at the factory at relatively the same time. Initially a cause for celebration, this drives a wedge between Cynthia and Tracey, and soon the two find it difficult to even be in the same room without escalating to an argument. However, this is just the beginning as more questionable choices continue being made by the management of the steel factory our characters make their livelihood, like three mils being moved out of their factory and being shipped to who-knows-where (it’s implied that it goes south to Mexico thanks to NAFTA), and the union that once paid our characters well wants to renegotiate their contracts severely down, and in the midst of striking are hiring outside help to fill the factory lines. The pot begins to boil over as Oscar crosses the line to make more money than he was as Stan’s barback, despite Stan’s well-meaning protests and Tracey and Jessie continue to rail Cynthia for all the choices the management is making (which she is usually not a part of), and begin to balk that she only got her position as a diversity hire, turning the wedge between the women into a canyon. For years, the women did not let race get between them, but within the context of their livelihoods it becomes a focal point of the blame going around. The drama teases and stretches until all the characters reach their breaking point, culminating in an explosive climax. Through the interwoven nature of this close knit town, the audience is shown a live and prime example of the cruelty of bosses fueled by capitalistic desires, willing to turn the various racial groups that consist of the working American middle-class in on themselves, devouring each other in the process and leaving nothing but scars, pain, and resentment in their wake.
TAG should be commended for electing to add such a powerful piece of drama to their season. However, Joyce Maltby and her team falter and stumble in the execution.
Paul Yau and Joyce Maltby’s set deign is well done- the audience is able to see every single detail in the bar that Nottage’s characters inhabit, from the Philadelphia Eagles paraphenlia to a hanging set of factory gear (presumably Stan’s before he got injured), to the painted streak lines on the wall and the bronze piping that is above the bar. There are a lot of details, and you can see almost everything in the bar- which is the problem. Charles Wade’s lighting design is bright and excessive, making it seem less like a local bar/watering hole and more like a commercialized venue, and even then the lighting is still very bright for the standards of those bars. True, you are able to see everything, including the actors, but what this sacrifices is the blend of weariness and homeliness a bar with personality can have, which was a disappointment. Wade and Joyce Maltby worked on the sound design, which consisted of a smattering of period appropriate songs as well as transitional news headings that informed the audience of the passing of time. Peggy Krock’s costume design was questionable at times. Her looks for certain characters worked- Cynthia’s transformation from line worker apparel to management apparel is believable, Brucie’s disheveled costume made the audience sympathize with him, and just about every other character’s costumes were solid, or at least did not bring the audience out of the play. A small moment highlighting Chris’ sneaker craze is undercut when the new shoes he shows off are clearly run-of-the-mill, worn down Converse shoes, but the line is so quick that it may have been hard to justify the budget to grant him the show appropriate shoes. I was confused by the aesthetic of Jessie and Tracey’s costumes, as they did not seem to mesh with the actors wearing them (Becky and Melinda Maltby, respectably). I understand that after work, you would want to change into something you’re comfortable in and that is as far as can be from your work uniform, but the vibrant and hard-to-pin aesthetic of Jessie and Tracey’s costumes did not always match the characterization and performances being delivered. When their wardrobes were simpler and pared down, it much less jarring, and one of Jessie’s act two costumes finally fit her and the tone of the scene as she is down on her luck and out of a job, talking with Jason for the first time in while.
Besides the technical elements, I think the most critical point of not meeting expectations is through the performances given by the company. This production is fraught with scenes that have two speeds- casual and argumentative. Nottage has written all of the characters with an abundance of nuance, and the tempering of performances given by the actors must happen so the performances given don’t read as flat. In a short but pivotal and important role, Fowler is very articulate and human as Jason and Chris’ parole officer, starting the show with doses of humanity and complexity that are found in scarce amounts throughout the rest of the show. Knight’s Cynthia is also the most well-balanced of the three women, deftly expressing the difficulty of her position in the play: how can she root for herself and all the opportunities that she had been waiting for when the people that are paying her livelihood are the same people that are forcing her to enforce extremely hard decisions on her friends? She toes this line with finesse and gravitas, with her estranged husband giving an equally balanced performance. Roberts’ Brucie is the product of the actions all the characters go through, it’s just that it happened earlier, and thus he understands how low these companies are willing to go but is also fighting his drug addiction, a performance which transcends the stereotype and allows the audience to empathize with a man that has lost so much and will never get it back. The rest of the company does not meet the actors though, which I lament. Too often, it doesn’t appear that the actors are listening to each other, rather it seems they’re just throwing the lines out of the way, wasting Nottage’s characterizations. When the actors are not listening to each other, they are not affecting each other, and often this made the production feel like there were no stakes, that nothing was on the line. With a more guiding presence, perhaps the actors could have been consistent. I do believe they are capable of such work as there are glints of honesty, humanity, and truth throughout the show. However, the fact remains that the majority of the company was inconsistent in their deliveries.
Finally, the climax of the show was a very disappointing affair. A fight breaks out in the bar as we are present to see the actual incident that incarcerates Jason and Chris. However, Yau’s choreography comes out half-baked and flat, no matter how you cut it. Technically, I understood what was happening- punches, kicks, uses of a bat. Technically, it was choreographed well, and if it was performed as such then it wouldn’t be so jarring. The whole climax fight is meant to be jarring, as it’s an extended bit of raw violence that you do not get anywhere else in the play. Throughout the show, the audience is slowly becoming on edge as everyone else on stage is- will they have a job, will they reconcile their differences? Yet, the fight was performed with wildly differing speeds and it did not appear that everyone quite knew what they were doing. Hits were not performed with the appropriate amount of reception, the use of naps seemed to be entirely gone, or at least missed, and the weight of every throw and attack seemed oddly floaty. Ultimately, a fight being performed in this fashion is unsafe as without tighter choreography, and it entirely shatters whatever tension and drama that was building up to that point.
SWEAT by Lynn Nottage is a powerful and well-written play, with Nottage being the only woman in history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice- once for this show, and once for RUINED. However, this production directed by Joyce Maltby leaves much to be desired. Rarely do her actors rise to the text, the set and costume choices are questionable at times, and the climax at the end does not deliver on the rising tensions and aggression the play needed it to. SWEAT is playing at The Brad Powell Theatre at the Dole Cannery, running through May 5. For tickets, visit this link.