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Theater Review: “Sweat”

“Sweat” plays through May 12, 2019, at San Diego Rep's Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

Life in blue-collar America is increasingly difficult, as the U.S. continues its march to a post-industrial society while trying not to leave factory workers behind. 

Playwright Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” takes us to Reading, Penn., where we will meet a group of friends, some of whom who have worked in a mill an average of 20 years each.

It’s a tough life, with long hours, repetitive and sometimes dangerous work, and no power to effect change. But it’s the life they know, and most of them are glad to have it.

They drink, socialize and celebrate in the same bar, run by Stan (Jason Heil), a former factory worker himself who was injured on the job. Where was the union? You know the answer: their power is mostly illusory – unless they’re willing to call a strike.

Cynthia (Monique Gaffney) and Tracey (Judy Bauerlein) are longtime friends.

African-American Cynthia has 20-plus years in and is beginning to wonder if that’s all there is. She also has a very bright son named Chris (Cortez Johnson), and she’d like to do right by him and see him get a good college education.

Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Matt Orduña) shows up when he wants money or food or comfort.

Tracey is white, has accepted life as it is and has no ambition beyond the factory floor. She also has a son, Jason (Steve Froehlich), more interested in cars and girls than in intellectual pursuits. Chris and Jason have had brushes with the law, which we see in interactions with parole officer Evan (Antonio T.J. Johnson).

Jessie (Hannah Logan), who works the line with the others, drowns her life in booze in the bar after hours.

Finally, there’s Colombian-American Oscar, who works with Stan in the bar. He’s about the same age as Jason and Chris.

The play jumps back and forth between 2000 and 2008. NAFTA (which abolished tariffs on manufactured imports) was in effect, making offshore manufacturing more attractive to corporations.

In 2008, the stock market crash (and subsequent rescue of the banks by massive injections of taxpayer dollars) created even more problems for blue-collar workers.

Conflict flares at the Reading plant when the white shirts upstairs announce a new position as warehouse supervisor, and (perhaps to placate the union) they want a current line worker.

Cynthia jumps at the chance, largely because it means “more money, more heat, more vacation, and less work.” But she will be called a sellout by others, notably Tracey.

If you’re a union member – or know anyone who is – you can guess what will happen, especially when Cynthia (now one of “them”) comes back a month later with news that management is asking for concessions from the union, with the implied threat that if they don’t get them, the factory will be moved to Mexico.

Playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner have tackled the human problems of factory work, but to my mind Nottage is the first to put the future of collective bargaining in the age of NAFTA under scrutiny. Nottage did her homework, spending considerable time in Reading and interviewing locals about the factory situation.

Though “Sweat” covers important issues - and does it with engaging characters - the play seems unnecessarily wordy. This show also uses projections at the top of each of the 14 scenes, describing what was happening in the U.S. at the time. These seem neither necessary or enlightening. And it may be interesting to wait a few years and see effects what the renegotiated NAFTA will have on collective bargaining.

Still, this production sparkles with fine performances all around. A particular shout-out to Jason Heil, who brilliantly took over the pivotal role of Stan after Jeffrey Jones was injured during rehearsal (I understand Jones will return).

John Iacovelli’s versatile set works well; Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are perfect; lighting and sound are well handled by Anne E. McMills and Matthew Lescault-Wood, respectively.

A play by Nottage is always worth seeing, and “Sweat” is no exception.

The details

“Sweat” plays through May 12, 2019, at San Diego Rep's Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or sdrep.org