By Lynne Nottage
Directed by Justin Emeka
Suzanne Robert Theatre, Philadelphia
Oct. 17- Nov 4
The Philadelphia Theatre Company is back on the boards at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre after a year shutdown to regroup under the artistic direction of Paige Price, who chose Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat to launch PTC’s new season.
Justin Emeka directs a fine ensemble cast of Philly-based actors- Brian Anthony Wilson, Matteo Scammell, Walter DeShields, Kimberly S. Fairbanks, Rich Hebert, Kittson O’Neill, Suli Holum, J. Hernandez and Damian J. Wallace.
Nottage’s drama bounces back and forth between 2008 and 2000 to explore the impact of economic collapse in Reading, PA where factory and industrial plant workers were watching their wages shrink, their jobs disappear as manufacturers outsourced production lines and their unions splinter. The worker squeeze was on and it gets very personal.
Sweat opens in 2008 as Jason, a young white man just out of prison faces off with his parole officer Evan who knows that Jason is probably headed back to prison if he doesn’t deal with his rage quick. Jason’s former best friend Chris, black a young black man, also just out of prison but with a plan to rebuild his life.
What brought these two men to this crossroads is told in flashback as they hang out in the neighborhood bar with their families and and a tight group of friends who all work in the same Reading manufacturing plant.
Chris’s mother Cynthia and Jason’s mother Tracey are at the bar celebrating their coworker Jessie birthday and everyone is plastered. The party is interrupted when Cynthia’s estranged husband Damien shows up strung out on drugs and in dire straits since he lost his job after a union walkout the previous year. He tries to reconcile with Cynthia and convince her he is clean, but she isn’t having it until he gets help. Jason’s mother Tracey is a lifelong factory worker who feels her job is on the line. When Cynthia gets promoted to management it threatens their friendship as rumors of union busting swirls and Cynthia is caught in the middle.
Meanwhile, her son Chris has decided not to waste his life in the factory and plans to go to college for a teaching degree and Jason tries to talk him out of it. Nottage’s carves out the overt and subtle racial divides that surface through the economic crisis as Reading’s white and black workers are pitted against each other. Oscar, a Hispanic who works in the bar, is invisible to the others until he seeks a job at the factory as temp, while management shuts out the longtime workers.
Cynthia frustration living day to day for the possibility of a promotion to management. When she does get promoted, she is used as a corporate pawn and it ruins her friendship with Tracey and Jessie.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Fairbanks, O’Neill and Holum equally dynamic in conveying their private emotional turmoil feeling betrayed by each other. Scammell and DeShields turn in powerhouse performances as the broken best friends who must come to terms with lives going forward.
Nottage doesn’t short hand much. She drives home the political points in meaningful, if sometimes heavy-handed ways. The images of news politicians from 10 years ago is a bit overdone. But how ripe it is to see them put forth their own empty promises.
There are some some bumpy transitional scenes and Nottage seems to run out of ideas for Tracey, for instance, and O’Neill seems to be stuck voicing the same rant about losing her job. J. Hernadez’s Oscar is almost a poetic symbol and his fate is resolved a bit too neatly. But even with the rough edges and character slights, but is emotionally earned by this cast.
Wallace brings so much depth as Brucie who escapes his reality through drugs and alcohol to the point that it has ruined his relationship with his wife and son. Walter DeShields and Matteo Scammell (Chris and Jason) Kimberly Fairbanks and Kittson O’Neill (Cynthia and Tracey) all navigating the emotional terrain of broken relationships and the path to reconciliation. Suli Holum punch drunk Jessie, seems like comic relief, but Nottage finally gives her a central heartbreaking moment, as she reminisces about her youthful idealist plans.
The set design of the bar by Christopher Ash seems like a real place, with real history. The pool table alone looks like it’s been slept in and spilled on. Ultimately, ‘Sweat’ wears its raw edges proudly, Nottage has written another brave play that speaks to some of the root causes of where we are as a nation now.