BY SANDY STAGGS
“Sweat” gets to the raw, exposed core and painful rationale behind the Rust Belt Trump voter and examines the loss of the American Dream in a naturalistic story with gritty emotion and the crushed value of human worth.
“The Rocky Horror Show” was a huge hit again for The Warehouse Theatre this Indian summer. But that silly, escapist tale was just musical fodder and filler as the company revved up for its official 45th season hard-hitting opener, “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage.
Nottage, whose “Intimate Apparel” was produced at Centre Stage last year, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with this grim, daunting drama, about blue-collar American, and ultimately, the Trump voter. Nottage is also the first African American female playwright to win two Pulitzers.
Just as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed’ (book and later play) demonstrated the impossible task of poor Americans trying to survive on the minimum wage, “Sweat” painfully depicts the dissolution of the American Dream in America’s manufacturing industry.
Reading, Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt is home to Olstead’s steel-tubing plant that is the livelihood of generation after generation of employees who have earned a robust Union paycheck until the hard realities of a global economy devastate this town and its denizens, as the U.S. manufacturing sector shrivels and American jobs are shipped to Mexico.
The play, directed by Martin Damien Wilkins, is primarily set at the local watering hole where factory workers come to unwind, throwback a few drinks, celebrate birthdays and gripe about the state of their union at Olstead’s.
Jayce T. Tromsness is Stan the bar’s manager. A former steelworker himself who was injured on the job, Stan, like many bartenders, is the voice of reason and smartest man in the room, forging a pragmatic perspective and accurate predictions on the events that unfold.
Nottage begins her drama in September 2008 just before the presidential election, as a parole officer (Darelle D. Dove) is meeting with recently released prisoners: White Supremacist Jason (Adrian Baynard), and then his former best friend, Chris (Sean Michael), an African American who has found God while incarcerated.
Then, the action shifts back to 2000 in happier and more prosperous times when the boys’ mothers, Tracey (Anne Kelly Tromsness) and Cynthia (Brittani Minnieweather) and their hard-drinking pal Jessie (an engaging and funny Maegan McNerney Azar) are discussing their lives after two decades of loyalty to Olstead’s, and a new management position that has just opened up.
The company had historically hired outsiders with college degrees for middle management, instead of promoting from within, but when Cynthia, who is African American, is rewarded with the job, a rift develops within their friendship, because Tracey is convinced race gave her friend an affirmative action edge. And that’s a mighty tall order, considering that these women have been close since school. In fact, all of them went right to the mill right after high school, joining their parents at the same plant, and instilling that tradition in their sons.
Buoyed by a bold track of rock songs during the scene transitions by sound designer Maranda DeBusk (who also did the lighting), the timeframe is established by myriad of news casts and sound bites such as Hillary Clinton announcing her run for the U.S. Senate in New York, several speeches by President George W. Bush, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole., etc.).
In one of the more touching and naïve moments in the story, Chris dreams of leaving the steel life and going to college, while Jason plans to retire from the plant at 50 in Myrtle Beach with a condo and Dunkin’ Donuts franchise.
Of course, when the fat cats on Wall Street that own the mill want to cut salaries in half, eliminate pensions, and bring in scab workers such as Latinos who are willing to do the same job for much less, those dreams never materialize.
Pounding home themes of racism and corporate pillaging, it’s the gritty performances by Ms. Tromsness and Minnieweather, and Baynard’s Marlon Brando swagger and tough-guy demeanor (a la “On the Waterfront”) that drive the actions and reaction in “Sweat,” particularly when confronted with the struggling bar back Oscar, the American-born son of Colombian immigrants (played delicately by Bryan Montemayor), who breaks the picket line in the name of survival and targeted as a convenient scapegoat.
But Nottage, who conducted scores of interviews with Reading residents for this naturalistic drama, is quick to point out that the main characters are the offspring of immigrants who started working at the plant decades earlier, and thus have a “legacy” path to supposed lifetime employment and benefits. Nor does the playwright paint these uneducated people in angelic terms. Jessie is a hilarious but raging drunk and Tracey, for example, is not a very likeable woman for much of the play. And it’s almost befitting to see her ravaged condition later on.
Also notable in “Sweat” is Brian Reeder as Brucie, the drug-addicted husband of Cynthia. Reeder somehow elicits our empathy as the victim of a worker lockout, and a sad relic of the diminished role and power of labor unions.
The agency of “Sweat” is here and now with Donald Trump’s appeal to these affected workers on “Main Street” whose lives were destroyed ‑ in their eyes by NAFTA and Bill Clinton ‑ and could be set in any American city, including Greenville or Spartanburg, where textile mills once reigned supreme and are now luxury loft apartments.
The realistic tavern and scenic work was designed by James Ogden in this play, the first of two Warehouse Theatre shows set in a bar. The company’s return of “Christmas on the Rocks,” set in an urban bar, opens on December 6.
“Sweat” continues through Oct. 28 at The Warehouse Theatre, 37 Augusta Road in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 235-6948 or visit www.warehousetheatre.com/.