For Los Angelenos, watching Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” playing at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum until Oct. 7, may seems like a documentary about people from another civilization. The gritty 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about a factory town and its blue-collar inhabitants, who are devastated by the economic reality of the early 2000s and NAFTA. There are blue-collar homeowners in still grappling with upside down mortgages in not too distant Southern California suburbs. However, the characters in “Sweat” shine a bare, somber light on areas with no economic diversity or opportunity, along with the working class despair and disillusion that drove people to elect Donald Trump.
Reading, Penn., as depicted in Nottage’s work, is a dying town, in which generation after generation previously worked at a mill or factory. They thought they had it made, until the jobs set off and despair set in. While it does not make for a lot of laughs, the play effectively shows how lives can unravel very quickly and spiral into drugs, alcohol, lost friendships and violence.
As “Sweat” begins, two young men have just got out of jail in 2008 for a crime, the details of which are not revealed until late in the show. African American Chris (a sympathetic Grantham Coleman) is reflective, sorry and glad to be home. Conversely, his childhood friend Jason (Will Hochman) became a white supremacist with face tattoos in prison, and is belligerent and bitter. From here, the action shifts to a town bar in 2000 to relate what happened to them, their mothers and the town.
The rest of the play flits between 2000 and 2008. Footage on the bar TV provides historical context and the multimedia projection design by Yee Eun Nam shines dates and headlines on the proscenium.
Stan (the excellent Michael O’Keefe) is the bartender, who had worked at the factory for 20 years before a workplace injury took him out of commission. He serves drinks and advice to the young men’s mothers, Cynthia (Portia) and Tracey (Mary Mara), who have stood alongside each other on the factory floor for decades. Portia’s ex lost his position at another factory and they know jobs are possibly moving at theirs. As one character says, “The writing was on the wall and we were pretending we can’t read.” The relationships shift when Cynthia earns a promotion that puts her on the management side of rising tensions with workers.
When machinery is moved out (along with jobs) over the Fourth of July – talk about a low move! – Cynthia takes the wrath of her former colleagues. Bitter Tracey escalates the tension by taunting that Cynthia got the job only because she is African American. Never mind that the job is tearing Cynthia apart.
The play continues to shift between characters and time periods to show the unraveling of their lives. Unfortunately, it takes too long for their descent into economic, physical and/or spiritual ruin and the inevitable disaster that sent the men to prison.
While sometimes grim and too long, the somber “Sweat” shines a light on working class despair and the ineluctable twists of fate that change lives. Nottage’s play about the “human costs of (companies) making their profits” will be at the Mark Taper Forum until Oct. 7. It will also be seen on a four-week election-timed tour, beginning Sept. 27, through cities in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance Sep. 5, 2018
Center Theatre Group
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Photo by Craig Schwartz of, L-R, Mary Mara and Portia in the Center Theatre Group production of “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum.