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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 2 years ago

Lynn Nottage’s 'Sweat' explores the labor pains of 21st century American unions

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Asolo Repertory Theatre actors fully embrace the playwright's sharply-written dialogue to deliver confident realism.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” is the latest historical drama to hit the Mertz Theatre stage. It’s recent American history, but history nonetheless. You can tell, because the working class characters all have factory jobs.

The place is Reading, Pa. The action alternates between 2000 and 2008. The decline of America’s unions is the big picture. Nottage shows you that picture in the microcosm of a blue-collar bar.

In 2000, Chris and Jason are teenagers with a promising future. In 2008, they just got out of prison, and their future looks dim. They committed a brutal crime. You don’t see what they did until the end. But you do see why.

Reading has been a factory town for decades. It won’t be for long. As the millennium dawns, Olstead’s steel mill starts downsizing, outsourcing, offshoring and automating. The workers are on the ropes. For a knockout punch, the owner breaks his union deal. Olstead offers his workers a new deal: Accept a 60% pay cut, more hours, and slashed benefits. Or hit the gate.

The steel workers strike. Olstead locks them out. Temps take their jobs, and the union folds. When the factory reopens, the few remaining jobs are lousy. The ripple effect hits the town like an earthquake.

It’s an ugly new reality. Chris and Jason’s crime is only part of it. Other characters turn to booze and drugs. Marriages, businesses and friendships fail. The old union contract is dead. The town’s social contract died with it.

Nottage punctuates these small stories with glimpses of the big picture. Snippets of the relentless news cycle appear on various screens. Layoffs. Elections. Stock market fevers. Protests in Seattle. The news looks bad for workers across America.

Matt DeCaro and Kevin Minor in Asolo Rep's production of "Sweat." Photo by Cliff Roles

Director Nicole A. Watson honors the playwright’s advice: “The dialogue should have the free-flowing velocity of a bar conversation: people step on each other's thoughts, but also occasionally find moments of silence and introspection.” Watson nicely captures the rhythms of life.

The actors deliver their own confident realism. Matt DeCaro’s bartender is a man of integrity. He’s got a backbone, but it’s not enough to stop the ugly tide of history. Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann’s Tracey is a wisecracking steelworker who’s in it for life. Her tough girl persona erupts with racism when her livelihood is threatened. Her African-American friend Cynthia (Danielle Lee Greaves) just escaped a lifetime on the line and moved up to management — and become the instant target of worker resentment.

Bruce A. Young portrays Brucie as a broken man with vestiges of greatness. The roaring union lion has been reduced to a mumbling drug addict. Liz Zweifler’s Jessie is a perpetual drunk — a former hippie, who got stuck in a dead-end town and never hit the hippie trail. Rudy Galvan is quietly moving as Oscar, a young Columbian-American. He’s a hard worker who crosses the picket line and makes himself a target for racist rage.

Carolyn Ann Hoerdemann and Rudy Galvan in Asolo Rep's production of "Sweat." Photo by Cliff Roles

Minor and Kresch are heart-rending as Chris and Jason. They alternate between their hopeful teenage selves and the damaged goods they become. Gabriel Lawrence is great as Evan, their compassionate parole officer. He offers good advice — and the best line of the play: “Most folks think it’s guilt or rage that gets us in the end, but I know from experience it’s shame.”

Paige Hathaway’s lovingly detailed bar set makes the perfect microcosm for Nottage’s characters. It turns from cheerful to cheerless as their lives hit dead end. Trevor Bowen’s costumes suit the budgets of working people. They can’t afford designer labels, but they still make a statement.

Nottage’s dialogue is sharply-written; her characters feel drawn from life. Actually, they are. The playwright spent two years interviewing the workers (and ex-workers) of Reading, Penn. That research tethers her imagination at times. Her story can’t fly free of the facts. If you keep up with the news, you know the story.

But the story still grips you, even if you know how it ends.

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