Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni
Anger and fear are powerful forces, and those hounds of hate have been released with ferociously effective results in our recent elections. In 2016, it gave us the morally squalid presidency of Donald J. Trump. And it threatens to do so again in a few days if everyone (meaning EVERYONE) doesn’t vote.
The seeds of that anger are explored in Sweat by Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize winning play now at the Cleveland Play House. Set in both 2000 and 2008, we see how blue-collar workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, are trying to manage their frustrations about job loss, insecurity and diminished hope.
The play begins in 2008 when two young men, Jason and Chris, are being interrogated by their parole officer (Robert Barry Fleming) in the wake of a crime they committed but which is not mentioned. Then we flash back to the year 2000, when NAFTA was the hotly debated topic since many feared it would send jobs out of the country.
These discussions are held in and around a bar run by Stan, a middle-aged guy who suffered a leg injury on the job at the local steel tubing factory and now walks with a pronounced limp. His customers and hangers-on include a trio of three female workers at the plant—Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie. Cynthia is black and Tracey and Jessie are white, and like good union members they bond together after their shift, helping each other navigate their jobs, family lives and excessive drinking habits.
Tracey’s son Jason also works at the plant, and he shows up occasionally at the bar with his black pal Chris, who is Cynthia’s son. To complicate matters further, Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Jimmie Woody) is hanging around trying to reconnect with her. Also, the bar’s janitor and go-fer Oscar (Xavier Cano) is longing to work at the plant and responds to a factory flyer seeking Hispanic workers to apply for non-union (ie. lower paying) jobs.
Then things get dicey when Cynthia is promoted to management and the plant forces a lockout on the workers. Old tensions boil up and fault lines appear, ending in an Act Two physical confrontation that has tragic consequences.
There are a lot of characters to wrangle in this play, and Nottage is only sporadically successful at making them all seem believable. Indeed, the long explanatory speeches that most of them give to fill in their back stories sound more like factoid sociological profiles that human speech as the playwright ticks off the requisite character boxes: The Loyal Worker Who Was Damaged, The Locked Out Worker with a Grudge, The Dead-End Worker Who Just Wants a Paycheck, The Drunk Worker Who Passes Out on a Daily Basis, etc.
Under the direction of Laura Kepley, the CPH actors invest the material with as much humanity as possible. Nancy Lemenager makes Tracey a fierce foe of whomever she targets, while Nehassaiu deGannes slaloms deftly through Cynthia’s two job descriptions and her familial issues. As the third leg of this trio, Chris Seibert portrays constantly drunk Jessie with deft control to avoid having her become a cliché.
The guy-pal duo of Jason (Jack Berenholtz) and Chris (Brooks Brantly) doesn’t work quite as well due to the fact that their characters, particularly in the 2000 scenes, are underwritten. As Stan, Robert Ellis is a strong and steadying influence on his patrons.
The working class in this country has gotten the short and nasty end of the economic stick for a long time, and this play deserves credit for trying to adjust that balance. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore how the righteous and justifiable anger of blue-collar workers has been twisted by many of our current politicians into racial hate, intolerance of others and unquestioning belief in big lies repeated ad nauseam. Maybe we can see that in another play down the road, if we’re not all in jail by then for being…different.
So, you know: Vote!
Through November 4 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.