Review: Sweat at Spirit Square
By Perry Tannenbaum
Not at all liberal or intellectual, nor with aspirations toward witty stylishness or trendiness, Lynn Nottage’s SWEAT is a brutal and humbling lesson in empathy. Very humbling for clueless liberals and intellectuals who never got why blue collar and union workers jumped out of the pockets of the Democratic Party at the turn of the 21st century – turning our history and politics into a train wreck.
Premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, before opening at The Public Theatre in November 2016 and transferring to Broadway the following March, Nottage’s working-class drama, which won a second Pulitzer Prize for the playwright in 2017, seemed to break out when it would resonate loudest with 2016 presidential politics and issues. By that time, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), ratified more than two decades earlier in 1993, was swept into a whirlwind of xenophobic issues that included illegal immigrants, Mexican gang rapists, manufacturing jobs shipped overseas, immigration reform, and a border wall.
Nottage mostly takes us back to 2000, when the reality of NAFTA was impacting on steelworkers in Reading, Pennsylvania. The authenticity of her lunch-pail portrayals comes by dint of personal interviews that Nottage conducted in Reading with Kate Whoriskey, who would ultimately direct the Oregon premiere, over a two-year period beginning in 2011. Subjects of these interviews included many factory workers who had been locked out of a steel tubing manufacturing plant for 93 weeks.
Two such plants figure in Nottage’s portrait of Reading. One of them has previously crushed Brucie and his fellow union members, so he’s already a pitiful druggie when the action begins. Another plant, where his son Chris and his estranged wife Cynthia still work, will soon follow suit, further dividing Brucie’s family and the other regulars who gather at a rundown bar where Stan serves up drinks and downtrodden Oscar mops up.
Directing the Warehouse Performing Arts Center production at Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square, a month after its debut run in Cornelius, Michael Connor deftly contextualizes the action. Where Nottage’s script calls for “News of the day” sound montages, we’re repeatedly reminded – amid mentions of Allen Iverson, the Philly 76ers, and troublemaking Iraq – that this is the election year of the pivotal Bush-Gore showdown.
Yet Nottage isn’t exclusively focused on the fallout from NAFTA, nor is Brucie the only foreshadowing of how her story will develop. The preamble to the explosive action of 2000 is the opening scene, where Chris and his friend Jason meet separately in 2008 with Evan, their parole officer. As we gradually become aware that the fallout from NAFTA will deal yet another blow to Reading, we also realize that the chums will do something violent to earn their serious prison time.
We also learn in the preamble how different and antagonistic Jason and Chris have become, for Jason sports white supremacist tattoos on his face from his prison years while Chris grasps a bible in his left hand. Jason is the powder keg we keep our eyes on in the unfolding flashback scenes, but it isn’t too long before we realize that his emerging racism is a family hand-me-down from Tracey, his mom.
The rifts between these black and white families develop along separate tracks. When Olstead’s posts a notice that they have an opening for a new supervisor, Tracey’s kneejerk reaction is to spurn the idea of crossing over to management, but Cynthia tells Stan that she intends to apply, feeling that she has earned a promotion by virtue of all the years of hard work she has put on the floor.
Tracey certainly vies with her son Jason as the most toxic person in town. When she loses out to Cynthia on the promotion after she also applies, she attributes her friend’s success to affirmative action and the tax breaks she presumes Olstead’s receives for hiring a minority. She also refuses to help Oscar come on board at the company, viewing him as a foreigner. Of Puerto Rican ancestry but born in Reading, Oscar eventually signs on as a scab when Olstead’s locks Tracey, Jason, Chris, and their union out. They send Cynthia out to post the lockout notice, further roiling tensions around the plant – and at the bar.
So the ills of Reading aren’t confined to corporate greed. Xenophobia and racism are also on the scene, bringing latent Trumpism into bloom. The balance of Nottage’s analysis extends to the depth and pluminess of the parts she doles out. Warehouse artistic director Marla Brown only slightly dilutes Tracey’s toxicity, leaving room for a hint of mid-America wholesomeness and nicely gauging Nottage’s rounded assessment. For the arc of her disintegration starts at a merry, drunken celebration of her 45th birthday in the first flashback scene.
Tanya McClellan, off my radar for far too long, shows everyone what she can do with the opportunity to branch out from comedy roles into drama, for she does more than her share to flavor the friendship – and later, the complex antagonism – between Cynthia and Tracey. Before serving as a barometer for Tracey’s disintegration, there’s a marital confrontation with Brucie where Cynthia fills out our picture of how far he has fallen. McClellan’s mix of vulnerability and dignity is just right in both situations.
Never on an even keel like the other characters here, Brucie is as challenging as Tracey, for he’d flatten to two dimensions in the hands of an actor who couldn’t deliver several levels of desperation. In his scattered scenes, including one with a majestic monologue and another where he proves not to be the sponge we thought he was, Dominic Weaver is so very real and unforgettable.
Matt Webster as Stan and Justin Thomas as Oscar seem equally detached from the main plotlines – until they aren’t. While still on the periphery, both have eloquent moments. Webster excels when Stan describes life in a company as successive generations of the same family toiling at the same plant for successive lifetimes, with no solid hopes of advancement, no real appreciation from management, and instantly disposable. After about an hourlong immersion in that dreary reality, Thomas gets to shock us a little by telling us what it’s like as a Hispanic to live a lifetime as the hydrant of all these self-pitying underdogs, even if you’re born in the US like Oscar.
If you’ve already gathered that there are no weak links in this Warehouse production, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was impressed by both our protagonists, Maxwell Greger as Jason and Drue Allen as Chris, though Nottage shunts her leads to the wings for long stretches while plant politics take center stage. From the black eye we see on Greger in the preamble, augmenting the three tats on the other side of his face, we know quickly that that Jason is always coiled for action. Even when those markers disappear in the flashback scenes, Greger has a chiseled James Dean intentness in the set of his jaw, an unfocused discontent that portends trouble.
Allen, in his portrayal of Chris, underscores what irks Jason and his mom most deeply: like Cynthia, who craves a promotion, Chris wants to better himself by going to college. There’s a relatively calm purposefulness to his demeanor, firm but without rigid righteousness, as he deals with his broken dad and his beggary. And we come to see through Allen’s eyes that when a broken justice system unjustly incarcerates you because of your color, taking up the bible isn’t the worst way to cope.
As Evan, Ron McClelland has that seen-it-all confidence of a parole officer who knows the ploys and dodges of hardened criminals, yet beneath his tough exterior, this copper seems earnestly engaged with even Jason’s rehabilitation. Becca Worthington rounds out the cast as Jessie, a third musketeer with Cynthia and Tracey at the outset when they’re still chums. Arguably, she serves as a white counterpart to Brucie: no matter how sloshed she gets hanging out at the bar until last call, she cleans up and punctually punches in at the plant at 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning.
The presence of McClelland and Worthington in such minor roles is just another earmark of this high-quality Warehouse PAC production. It also testifies to the attractions of working with such a stellar cast on such a stellar and timely script.