Arts theater review

‘Sweat’: a brilliant production that steels the show

You can’t see what’s in front of you if there’s sweat in your eyes

Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Huntington Theatre Company
Jan. 31–March 1

At a point in time when automation is replacing millions of jobs across the United States, Lynn Nottage’s play seems more relevant than ever. Originally premiering at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Sweat is the culmination of two years of interviews with former steelworkers from Reading, PA. An Obie-, Tony-, and Pulitzer Prize-winning production, it tells the story of the working class in one of the poorest cities in America during the Bush administration.

When you walk into the Huntington, you are met with a stage that is barren save a black screen spanning across the front of the set. Besides the gilded leaves and towering blue bannisters, there’s nothing that prepares you for the opening. A projector displays the date along with radio announcements of timely news headlines, a device that’s used throughout the story to indicate the passage of time. As the play jumps backwards and forwards, aided by clever scene transitions, the story gradually narrows towards the unspoken climax of the plot. 

It’s a character-driven play in the truest sense. The complicated lives of the protagonists intertwine in unimaginable ways that cause tragedy after tragedy. In some sense, the story of the long-time steelworkers becoming replaced by temporary migrant workers is familiar. On the other hand, it’s about the furthest thing from reality for urban, white-collar Bostonians. Middle-aged mothers Tracey and Cynthia have each put in around 20 years at Olstead’s, the local steel plant, clocking in as soon as they graduated high school. When the managers decide that it’s time to cut salaries and bring in migrant workers to replace the old-timers — and when the worker’s unions decide to fight back — tensions start to rise. It doesn’t help that Tracey’s husband Brucie (Alvin Keith), who was locked out of work several years back and has since become an addict, tries to convince them to stop fighting and accept a deal. Stan (Guy Van Swearingen), an older steelworker who retires to bartending after an injury, sees both sides of the picture, and his attempts to calm down the patrons of his bar reveal the hidden motives and insecurities among the residents of the town.  

While we don’t get to see much of the characters’ pasts, their histories are revealed through their conversations and reactions to one another. In the first scene, spotlights shine down on a prison officer and an inmate covered with Nazi tattoos. The interrogation between Jason (Shane Kenyon) and the officer reveals Jason’s shame and provides some background for the complicated relationship he now has with his former best friend Chris. Both of their mothers work at the steel plant, and though they haven’t put in as many years, it’s just about the only life they’ve ever known. There’s tension also between Cynthia, who eventually earns a promotion at the plant, and the other workers. Though her friends try to act as though it’s no problem, they’re obviously jealous of her new privilege. Tracey goes as far as to attribute her success to her race, claiming that the management was trying to increase diversity among their ranks. Later on, when management decides that it’s time for layoffs, they see Cynthia’s inability to change their decisions as a betrayal, and Cynthia is unable to resolve her guilt.

The pacing is varied but tight — every word counts in this story, whether it’s moving the plot forward or revealing past drama between characters. In particular, a character we don’t initially see as important, Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega), the busboy at Howie’s Tap, ends up with a dramatic arc of his own, eventually intertwining with the lives of the workers in Reading in a tragic encounter. When he goes from underpaid shifts at the bar to accepting a new position at Olstead’s, the regulars at the local watering hole are not pleased. Whether it’s jeering at the “scabs” for making dollars on what they see as their rightfully earned wages or physical violence, the bar transforms into a hostile battleground.

The set is particularly well-designed: pieces move forwards onto the stage or drop down from the ceiling, limiting transitions needed to progress from one scene to the next. Howie’s Tap features a hyper-realistic bar complete with beer on tap, wooden panel seating, and neon lights declaring available brews. It contrasts with the scenes in the prison — a barren brick wall painted shades of gray — and the alleyway behind the bar, where the characters occasionally come out to smoke. The smoke that lingers from the actors’ cigarettes combined with the ambient sounds onstage turn the theater into a backlit street of its own during those scenes, though the choice to use real cigarettes was possibly an unwelcome surprise for theater-goers. 

The actors performed phenomenally, carrying both the happy-go-lucky cadence of the 2000s and the emotionally charged dialogues eight years after. You don’t get a sense for their range of abilities until you see how striking the difference is between the younger and older versions of the characters. While the younger Chris is playful and eager to strike against the plant, an older Chris clasps a Bible with shaking hands when he visits his mother, aware of the weight of his guilt and his mistakes. Jason is both visually changed (he acquires tattoos during his time in prison) and emotionally affected, and he is no longer able to face his mother when he is finally released. Tracey goes from being happy-go-lucky and flirtatious, with an attitude straight out of the Roaring Twenties, to a broken addict unable to leave her home or find any work. Meanwhile, Cynthia tries to hold herself together, but has clearly fallen from her peak years as a manager at the plant, however stressful her position may have been. In the second act, the four characters play out their homecoming side by side, with spotlights illuminating the encounters at each of the households after the boys are released.  

Though much of the grind of daily life is light-hearted, there’s also the physical toil of years of work that lingers behind. Tracey complains about her back troubles, and Stan’s limp reminds us of the very real effects of injuries. The actors are able to display not only control in their language, but also in their performance onstage. In an intense brawl that occurs soon after an encounter between the workers laid-off from the plant and the new migrants, a carefully choreographed stage combat sequence plays out with Oscar, Jason, and Chris clambering at one another, throwing chairs and punches, and even breaking bones. The actors don’t brush off their injuries, instead striking a balance between over-the-top flips and rapid-fire punches. 

Nottage notes in her play that the setting is “Reading, PA, but It Could Be Anywhere.” With radio headlines of candidates making promises to bring back jobs to rural America, we can clearly see how widespread the issues portrayed can be. From class and race relations to financial struggles and addiction, the realistic portrayal of the problems faced by Americans every day reminds us of how issues discussed on the campaign trail have a very real effect on people. It doesn’t matter if the play is set in 2000, 2008, or even 2020 — when times are tough, even the strongest communities can fracture.