Arena Stage’s ‘Sweat’ Will Make You Sweat

Pulitzer Prize winning Lynn Nottage’s ungentle Sweat at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater brings a trenchantly written, razor-stark microcosm of the decline of the American union mill following passage of NAFTA. Less political than personal, Nottage doesn’t solely blame the trade agreement, but fuses responsibility with her characters’ inability to react to the inevitable.

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Sweat captures both the noun and verb of the word: the human by-product of old-fashioned hard work on a factory floor, and being in a sustained state of extreme anxiety over a prolonged period. As folksy bartender Stan (played with heartbreaking poignancy by Jack Willis) perspicaciously cautions: “nostalgia is death.” In Sweat, we’re all strapped to our seats, going down with the S.S. Reading Pennsylvania together, clinging to deflated dreams of job security and union power.

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The play opens in 2008 with an intercut between two parolees and their probation officer (Tyrone Wilson). Former friends Stephen Michael Spencer (as heated, outraged neo-Nazi Jason, his anger tattooed on his face), and Tramell Tillman (as more subtle, college-aspirant, Bible-toting Chris), are both agitated from a chance encounter, their first since committing an unknown crime. With the tone of foreboding set, time rolls backward, literally, as the remarkable turntable set (by Tony-winning Set Designer John Lee Beatty) rotates away from the grim and grey future, to a pitch-perfect blue collar local in 2000.

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The set is a character itself, perfectly evoking the era and the place, right down to real (cheap) beer coming from the taps. The bar’s regulars are metal tubing plant floor workers, drinking hard and blending the smugness of high wages and cushy pensions with the drudgery of unappreciated hours (and years) on the factory floor. Beginning in January, from birthday gathering to birthday gathering, we follow the crew month by month from satisfaction to suspicion to shattering loss as their old way of life erodes, and they slide from raising a bottle to crawling into one.

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The characters are initially diverse only in color – Chris, his mother Cynthia (Kimberley Scott), and father Brucie (Kevin Kenerly) are black, but they walk the same beat as Jason, his mother Tracey (Johanna Day), and friend Jessie (Tara Mallen). Even drink-slinger Stan is a former factory worker, sidelined by a debilitating on-the-job leg injury. It’s only when Cynthia wins her slice of the American Dream, getting promoted “off the floor” into management, that racial ugliness rears and former loyalties are tattered.

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At least, for them. The audience has followed the latent tension all along in the form of Oscar (Reza Salazar), the Colombian bar keep. Oscar has the fewest words of the play, but possibly the most stage time. He’s always there, semi-invisible, slicing fruit, wiping down the bar, being ordered around with scorn. As Oscar chips away at wads of chewed gum from underneath their booth, we watch the devolution of two friendships ripped by bigotry – or is it the impact of industrialization and power disparity?  Nottage leaves to the audience to pick apart the interplay of powerlessness and racism. Oscar both bears the brunt of irony in the play, absorbing disrespect from characters constantly complaining about respect, and offers the rare moment of hope, a glimpse into the “new American Dream,” and a simple desire to “do the right thing.”

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At times the actors’ frantic level of movement can be distracting – do people really hop around that much when they talk? But the performances are excellent. A less well know definition of “sweat” is the industrial act of applying slow heat over time causing metal to melt and become misshapen.  Stalwart Cynthia and hardscrabble Tracey are the human personification of this, their kids Chris and Jason swept down by the weight of generations. By the time the play devolves into its final, inevitable shattering act of violence, we are ready. Ready for resolution, ready for a break, ready to handle the truth. But, Nottage is neither tidy nor trite. There can be no neat resolution for unimaginative people caught in major social and economic upheaval. The climax happens, but the conclusion makes clear that life goes on, whether you like it or not. Stan’s final, hanging “Thank you” will haunt you.

Sweat is searingly written, adeptly performed, and gently directed in all its moral-benightedness by Kate Whoriskey. I was so engrossed that I was completely caught by surprise when the lights came up for intermission. Nottage has smartly told a tale of the past that speaks to the tensions of today.  Sweat is a play to be seen.

Sweat is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater from Jan. 15, 2016 through Feb. 21, 2016 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

Photo credit: C. Stanley Potography

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