The details matter in “Sweat,” Lynn Nottage’s fine-boned look at fraying loyalties and dimming hopes in Rust Belt America. Seemingly small actions made by the steel workers and bartenders reverberate in ways that cross class and racial divides.
So when an actor mimes smoking a cigarette and palms the “lit” end in his hand, or when people mime snacking on nonexistent bar nuts with the subtlety of kids at a tea party, or when an actor continually changes the severity of a limp, Nottage’s patiently crafted themes go out the window. All these and other gaffes occurred in Pure Theatre’s unaccountably slapdash May 28 rendition of the 2015 play at the Queen Street Playhouse, which has returned for four performances as part of Piccolo Spoleto.
Set in the blue-collar town of Reading, Penn., “Sweat” — Nottage’s second to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — begins in 2008, following the release from jail of two young men, Jason and Chris. The majority of the play, however, takes place eight years earlier within a small-town bar, the home away from home for the Olmstead factory workers, as it details the events leading up to the arrests of the two young men.
Run by Stan, a former factory employee who took over as barkeep following a workplace accident, the bar acts as an allegory for the state of the nation. The steel workers find themselves at the center of the de-industrialization revolution, which drives a wedge between longtime friendships and tests the factory workers’ allegiances.
The nine-person cast does not have an easy task undertaking the intricate socioeconomic themes running through their crumbling industrial livelihoods. But under the direction of artistic director Sharon Graci, the show is inconsistent, waffling between committed acting and dropped lines, sometimes within the same scene. The actors do not seem comfortable onstage as they fumble with props and struggle to fully commit to their blocking.
The only truly consistent performance is Joel Watson’s Chris, who is trying to decide whether to keep his steady salary at the factory or take a risk and go to college. Throughout the show, Watson jokes and jostles his way through the bar in his baggy jeans and oversize Timberland T-shirt, embodying a naive hopefulness that dwindles as the show progresses.
Richard Heffner’s set is fairly minimal, with only two tables and a makeshift bar adorning the stage. The scene transitions, however, are intriguing and help bring the set to life, thanks to the glowing, cool backlighting that silhouettes the actors in powerful tableaus. (Heffner also did the lighting design.)
At its core, “Sweat” dives into issues of immigration, race relations and the economic disparity in the age of technology through very authentic and complex characters. But it is up to the director to make sure the actors deliver performances that do justice to the text.
Reviewer Madalyn Owen is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.