Factory shutdowns often make headlines, particularly in local newspapers. Yet the human stories behind those closings rarely find their way into print. Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Lynn Nottage set out to change all that by turning these heart wrenching accounts into a hard-hitting play. She spent two years visiting and interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania that in 2011 was named the poorest city in America. Sweat follows a group of close friends whose work and social life revolve around the local steel mill. By the time their factory jobs are shipped off to Mexico, families have been broken apart, friendships have frayed, violence occurs, and nothing will ever be the same.
Jack Willis, Kimberly Scott, and Johanna Day
Nottage’s extensive research has resulted in a production that seems so authentic we might be watching the real workers rather than actors playing those roles. The dialogue rings true, friends getting together after work for a few beers at the local bar, celebrating birthdays and congratulating themselves for having jobs that provide a steady income, good benefits, and, eventually, a pension. Nottage’s excellent script soars with an ensemble cast. Each actor brings a high level of energy, emotion, and verisimilitude to the stage. For those of us who grew up in factory towns, we know these people. They were family and friends. We know that their jobs won’t last (despite the promises being made by the presidential candidates on the TV above the bar), but when the end comes, the aftermath is devastating.
Factory jobs are so coveted that when Chris (Tramell Tillman) announces that he’s going to college, fellow workers are amazed he would give up a stable, good paying job for a teacher’s low salary. Being in a union also is a source of pride. Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) admits that she often lets her union card slip out of her wallet so others can see it.
Tyrone Wilson and Stephen Michael Spencer
The action see-saws between good times and bad times – 2000 when the plant was still up and running and 2008 (the action occurring month-by-month) when management edges the plant towards a shut down. When the play opens, we’re in 2008 and the two young men, Chris and Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer), have been released from prison for a crime that remains unknown to us. They are reporting, individually, to their parole officer (Tyrone Wilson). The two friends, who were once close, are no longer speaking to each other. Prison changed both of them in different ways. Jason now sports facial tattoos favored by white supremacists, while Chris carries a bible, having found God while being locked up. Neither has a full-time job and both are estranged from their mothers. Chris’s mother, Cynthia, is piecing together two jobs in order to pay her bills, while her ex, Brucie (Kevin Kenerly), sleeps on her couch. Jason’s mother, Tracey (Johanna Day), is an addict.
Jack Willis and Reza Salazar
Flashing back to 2000, the plant is still operating and everyone has gathered at the bar to celebrate Tracey’s birthday. Jessie (Tara Mallen), going through a divorce, turns too often to the bottle and is passed out in a booth. Bartender Stan (Jack Willis), once worked at the factory, as did his grandfather and father. After suffering a workplace accident, he now limps and manages the bar for the absent owner, Howard. Stan keeps the regulars supplied with beer. He’s equally good, however, at doling out advice, most of which is ignored by those still working at the plant.
The friendship between Cynthia and Tracey becomes strained when Cynthia is promoted off the factory floor to management. Without a contract, the workers are looking to the union to save their jobs, refusing to accept the company’s buyout. Pressure builds on Cynthia to fight for her friends, but she’s afraid to jeopardize her new position, something that she feels she’s worked long and hard to obtain. When she is forced to post a sign on the factory door locking workers out, anger towards her builds. Also in the workers’ crosshairs is Oscar (Reza Salazar), who works at the bar but signs on as a scab to earn extra money and, hopefully, land a full-time job at the factory. With emotions roiling and the beer flowing, confrontations are inevitable.
Stephen Michael Spencer and Tramell Tillman
Once again, Arena’s timing is impeccable. We are in the midst of another presidential campaign where the issues of job loss and income inequality are being raised by the candidates. Yet Sweat doesn’t hammer us over the head with political pronouncements. Nottage allows the characters to speak for themselves. And while their situations turn dire, this play is not without humorous moments, much needed to break the tension.
Sweat is a co-production between Arena and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and premiered there in July, 2015, directed by Kate Whoriskey who returns to direct the Arena play with a deft hand. The majority of the original cast appears in this production, with the additions of Johanna Day as Tracey, Tara Mallen as Jessie, and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Kudos to the production’s design team for creating a bar that seems so familiar we feel immediately at home. Small details – the neon signs advertising local beer, the bowling trophies, and the scratches on the table – add to the realism.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Kimberly Scott, Kevin Kenerly, Tara Mallen, and Johanna Day
1101 Sixth Street SW
Through February 21, 2016