Working “the line” in a factory is a repetitive, physically grinding bore, but it’s a living. Or rather, it was. The dignity-obliterating race to the bottom whereby manufacturers seek ever-cheaper labor and the grim consequences for eight residents of a Pennsylvania city are the subject of Lynn Nottage’s tragedy Sweat. If that sounds like a hard sit, your instincts have not misled you.
The piece begins and ends in 2008, but flashes back for most of its two-and-a-half hours to the year 2000, when some could see the cliff approaching but no one knew how deep the chasm would be. The setting is Reading, Pa., a city of about 88,000 that in the 2010 census just beat Flint, Mich. as the most impoverished mid-sized community in the nation. All of the 2000-era scenes take place at a bar where three middle-aged women who’ve worked the line since high school go to blow off steam. Rumors that management will demand big concessions from the union at the upcoming contract talks have everyone on edge.
When Cynthia (Kimberly Scott), an African-American woman, is promoted and charged with delivering bad news to the rank-and-file, her white pals Tracey and Jessie (Johanna Day and Tara Mallen) are quick to accuse her of selling out and of having affirmative action to thank for her good fortune. Cynthia and Tracey have both secured jobs at the same plant for their recent high school-grad sons; add in Jack Willis as Stan, who retired from the factory after an injury and now tends bar, and that’s three generations of labor drowning their sorrows in the same little room. Reza Salazar’s Oscar—the son of Central American immigrants—works at the bar, too, but when he asks Tracey to help him get a better-paying job at the factory, she turns him down flat.
Kate Whoriskey staged Sweat for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the world-premiere 2015 production is now making its D.C. debut at Arena Stage. Nottage and Whoriskey, who previously collaborated on 2003’s Intimate Apparel and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner Ruined, interviewed residents of Reading as research for Sweat. Particularly authentic are Nottage’s observations about how shared hardship can uncork racial discord that stays bottled up in sunnier times, and how entitlement has a way of snuffing out generosity. Tracey and her son Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) slide into base bigotry to explain their misfortune, while dismissing the economic news disbursed through expository bursts of CNN on the bar TV as “bullshit.” (John Lee Beatty’s detailed revolving set is utterly convincing as a dive bar, except for the fact that the TV is tuned to cable news.)
Sweat’s stumbling block isn’t a lack of authenticity, but a lack of imagination. It’s an earnest dramatization of an existential problem, one that can only grow more dire as a shrinking sliver of the U.S. population controls a swelling percentage of the wealth. In the passages where Nottage lets her skills as a storyteller (and too infrequently, as a joke-teller) soar, the results are undeniably powerful—for example, when Mallen performs a drunken monologue about a trip she and her ex planned long ago, one she now knows she’ll never take. But her intention here is less to entertain than to bear witness to the suffering of an entire class of Americans—not, generally speaking, the one that goes out to see new plays.
Fair enough. I just wish there were something here that Bruce Springsteen hasn’t already illuminated, again and again, in the space of four-and-a-half minutes, with a melody to keep us listening. Nottage wants us to feel how the tedium of these characters’ lives feeds their bitterness, but her method—writing scenes of angry recrimination among friends that feel repetitive and tedious—makes me more inclined to clap my hands over my ears than to lean in. There is a nagging sense that we the audience are being lectured, and maybe that’s appropriate: There are a lot of fatcats in these seats, after all. But there probably weren’t many when it played in Ashland, Ore., and there probably won’t be if it ever gets to Reading, Pa.
1101 Sixth St. SW. $55–$100. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.