Trustus Theatre’s production of Sweat derives its title from the perspiration and toil of the working class that built America, and Lynne Nottage’s unsettling play pulls no punches in its depiction of those laborers’ lot in the early 21st century. Set in a blue collar bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is an uncompromising dissection of the collateral damage caused when factories close and jobs migrate south of the border.
At a recent matinee, Dewey Scott-Wiley, Lonetta Thompson and Christine Hellman portrayed hard-drinking 40-somethings Tracey, Cynthia and Jessie, who have bonded over the last two decades as coworkers at the local plant. Tracey’s son Jason (Patrick Dodds) and Cynthia’s son Chris (De’on Turner) have followed their mothers’ career and lifestyle choices, while Cynthia’s ex (Darion McCloud), a bitter and disillusioned union worker, struggles to keep his head above water while on strike from the town’s other main employer. It’s a tight-knit nuclear group of family and friends until an all-too-familiar story begins to play out: Cynthia’s promotion leads to animosity, just as downsizing, outsourcing, layoffs, and employee lockouts begin. By the play’s conclusion, the story has morphed into a racially charged cautionary tale filled with violence, substance abuse and the despair of shattered dreams.
Director Erin Wilson chose a solid cast, and her actors capably fleshed out characters that, as written, seemed somewhat two-dimensional. Dodds and Turner in particular were riveting during tense scenes with a probation officer (the always powerful Samuel McWhite). Steve Harley conveyed a genial yet jaded weariness as avuncular bartender Stan, while Samuel Traquina employed a quiet naturalism in his role as barback Oscar. Most of Nottage’s characters were recognizable types, but the actors seized every opportunity to shine in short speeches that revealed important aspects of their back stories — even if they were probably just a little more eloquent than undereducated factory workers would actually be.
Nottage’s script contains thematic echoes of populism from many of her predecessors in the pantheon of theater — from the drunk losers found in the works of Eugene O’Neill and Sean O’Casey, to the hopeful calls to action heard in plays by Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. To me, the point was belabored more than was needed, with perhaps 75 minutes of material stretched out to two and a half hours (including intermission). But the script did win the Pulitzer, and I was quite impressed at how naturally the language flowed.
Chet Longley’s scenic and lighting design was appropriate for the setting. One bit of set dressing — likely the work of property master Sam Hetler — was particularly notable: Given the play’s Pennsylvania setting, a sign for local brewer Yuengling adorned one wall, with traditional working man’s beer PBR clearly available on tap. Yet in a closing scene set after the bar has gone upscale, the logo of craft brewery Duck Rabbit is also displayed. Fight choreography by Patrick Michael Kelly was excellent in a crucial scene where anything less than perfection would have ruined the shock and intensity of the moment.
Guest artists Wilson and Harley were frequent performers at Trustus in its first decade, while most of the other actors in the cast have become prolific regulars more recently. As a result, this group knew how to tell a story, and engage the emotions of the audience, especially given the relevance and currency of the themes and issues presented. As friends turned on friends, and tragedy began to unfold, I began to imagine some invisible gremlin feeding off the negative emotions developing, as if this were some lost episode of The Twilight Zone. Yet everything played out with graphic and ugly realism.
The villains may have been unseen corporate overlords offstage, but my guess is that Nottage’s goal was to disturb the audience with realization of the darkness that lies within humanity.
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
When: Through June 1
More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org