Blue-collar angst splits co-workers in ‘Sweat’ at Stagecrafters

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 4/18/24

Stagecrafters veers into political territory with its production of "Sweat," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage.

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Blue-collar angst splits co-workers in ‘Sweat’ at Stagecrafters


Stagecrafters veers into political territory with its production of "Sweat," the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage. Set between the years 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, workers are devastated by the loss of basic industry to overseas markets.

"Sweat" opens in 2008 when testy parole officer Evan (Shel Griffin) confronts two  parolees, Jason and Chris, in separate interviews. The play then shifts back to the year 2000, and to happier times when these same men were young, carefree friends. 

From the start, bartender Stan (Jim Hopper) foreshadows danger: "You could wake up tomorrow and find all your jobs are in Mexico." One of his customers, Brucie (Jon D. Owens), fell victim to a factory lockout and is now a down-and-outer turned to narcotics and thievery. At first, no one takes them seriously.

The 2015 drama swirls around a circle of friends. Three women workers at a steel tubing plant gather after hours at Stan's bar - Tracey (Jennifer Lear),  Cynthia (Carlene Lawson) and Jessie (Sarah Stryker) --- a raucous, hard-drinking bunch. Joining them are Jason (Ryan Henzes) and Chris (Oliver Feaster), the sons of Tracey and Cynthia.

Over the years, the union has built up wages and benefits. In 2000, a rendezvous at Stan's bar to party down and celebrate birthdays is a way of life. But trouble brews. How will this close group respond if management becomes aggressive at cutting costs?   "Sweat" is about the effect that the single-minded, corporate pursuit of profit has on friends and community.   

Tracey in the Age of Trump

There are many characters in "Sweat," but in the Stagecrafters' production only Tracey becomes notable. She worked for over 20 years on the plant floor. Tracey is white; her best friend and co-worker Cynthia is black. Race is not an issue - until Cynthia decides to apply for an offered management position, at just the time workers hear rumors about employee layoffs. 

Then, Stan's bartender assistant Oscar (Jose Alejandro Roman) brings in a flyer. Written in Spanish, the steel tubing plant advertises for entry-level, Hispanic workers. Racial and ethnic tensions now grow vibrant, and Tracey burns with misdirected anger. 

After decades of economic security, she faces the specter of having no money and no future. Jennifer Lear makes you feel Tracey's mood swings. She paces the floor in sudden bursts. Her speech grows clipped and sardonic. She stops making sustained eye contact with her former friends. 

You have met people like Tracey, and her reaction to working-class disenfranchisement belongs to the age of Trump. You do not doubt her emotional sincerity and her material loss. At the same time, you are put off by the parochial smallness, and when Tracey stokes Jason's anger at "scab" Oscar it leads to a tragic result.  

American political theater

While "Sweat" lacks the metaphorical economy of early Arthur Miller works, like the better plays of the Depression Era, it dramatizes the impact the macroeconomic sphere has on personal relationships -  a subject that has been ignored by our theater for the last 50 years, and has only demagogic expression in our politics.

Lynn Nottage did not write "Sweat" in a vacuum. Together with collaborator Kate Whoriskey, she spent a full year interviewing residents of the rust-belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2011. These investigations gave her the material to write a play that is more than a sociological regurgitation of events. 

Her script is strong enough to make good drama, but its intensity does not shine through in this Stagecrafters' production. The most engaging aspect of the show occurs during the many scene changes. 

During these periods the stage is in semi-darkness. While props are shifted you hear radio broadcasts deliver the news of the day. It is sadly funny to hear the "official" news come across the static-filled airwaves, summing up the lack of political will to even recognize the impact of deindustrialization on American cities and towns. The show’s sound design is by Chris Sarnowski.

Director Suki has done strong work in past Stagecrafters' productions  such as "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," but this production lacks dramatic pace.  Even in "the good old days" of 2000, there is no genuine party feeling at Stan's bar, no acting-out gaiety, no authentic friendship. You cannot break what is already broken. Only Tracey's turmoil comes to stand out, and the suffering of other characters is short-changed.

The lack of dramatic intensity is especially marked at the end. The two boys, now grown men, finally face each other in a stilted barroom meeting. Then, Stan comes out of the back room, slowly, horribly brain-damaged. When I first saw a "Sweat" production the finale was so affecting that my eyes welled up. Here it is just a hurried, factual event. 

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. "Sweat" will run through April 28. Tickets available at 215-247-8881.