At the Goodman (Albert) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Lynn Nottage won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize drama for “Sweat,” her second Pulitzer. Nottage is the first woman to win two of these prestigious drama prizes. The play, now at the Goodman Theatre, explores blue collar life in the decaying industrial town of Reading, Pennsylvania. “Sweat” has its lighter moments but overall it is a grim and ultimately depressing drama about working class characters defeated by an economic system that no longer has any use for them.
There are nine characters in “Sweat,” and seven of them end badly, not dead but on life’s ash heap. There are whiffs of Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, August Wilson, and Studs Terkel in the play, but it remains a vivid triumphant personal showcase for Nottage and her brilliant use of commonplace language to delineate individuals–basically decent men and women who would lead better lives under different circumstances. But they are overwhelmed by the combination of their own weaknesses and cruel outside forces. The characters do have our sympathy, but much good may it do them.
Most of the play takes place in a Reading bar. There, a group of industrial workers gather to drink, smoke, complain, celebrate birthdays, and earn a living wage on the floor of a local factory. The narrative shuttles back and forth from 1960 and 1968. It’s not a linear story, but during the zig-zag narrative we witness how the characters gradually lose not only their paychecks but their dignity and self respect.
The factory downsizing plunges the workers into desperation and anger. The diverse group (black, white, and Hispanic) turn from companions to frantic rivals for the scraps that the unseen but ruthless factory management leave for them to fight over. Friends competing for scarce and lower paying jobs turn on each other. The tensions lead to alcohol abuse, drugs, and violence Families crumble under the economic stress.
There are no happy endings. After decades of steady industrial paychecks, the economic rug has been pulled out from under the workers, who find they were living in a fool’s paradise in which uninterrupted salaries and benefits inevitably led to a comfortable retirement. There is no hope in the cash-strapped town and the workers won’t leave the only working environment they have known since adolescence to start over in a new place.
Nottage interviewed many of the residences of Reading for her script and her drama has the ring of authenticity. This is a portrait of the invisible underclass left behind by a society moving on in a high tech age. We hear that Donald Trump was elected largely by a segment of discontented middle America convinced that the better educated part of our society on the east and west coasts couldn’t care less about their plight. And Trump is their revenge. What John Steinbeck did for the Okies of the Great Depression Lynn Nottage has done for the blue collar people who were allowed to slip between the cracks of American society.
The play’s nine characters are brought to galvanizing life by the flawlessly cast Goodman ensemble orchestrated with an invisible but always sure hand by director Ron OJ Parson. In the past Parson has concentrated on African American plays. There are several key black characters in “Sweat” but they meld fluently with white and Latino roles to establish a multicultural environment where everyone gets along, until their economic world collapses. Then, under Parson’s guidance and the entirely believable performances by the Goodman ensemble, friendly co-workers become racial and ethnic rivals as the old order crashes.
There are two family units (the black Cynthia, her loser husband Brucie, and their ambitious son Chris) and the white and strong willed Tracey and her hapless son Jason. They intermix with Stan, the white bartender, Jessie, a white worker, and the Hispanic Oscar, trying without success to crack the job market monopolized by blacks and whites. They all intermingle with rough companionship in the bar until the downsizing caves in their sense of security and well being. The final character is Evan, a black parole officer trying to save Jason and Kris with some tough love.
The play is staged primarily in the bar with a few scenes taking place before a drawn curtain at the edge of the footlights. The shifts in time are easy to follow, revealing the insidious deterioration of conditions at the factory with agonizing inevitability. The audience knows about the controversies over the disappearance of American industrial jobs, especially to cheaper labor markets in other countries. We absorb that story primarily through newspapers and cable TV. Nottage removes the story from the national media and self serving politicians and dumps it in the audience’s lap, where we can witness in human terms the panic of people suddenly without jobs, health insurance, the money to keep up a mortgage, or the ability to send a child to college. And the damage is done as much to the spirit as to the pocketbook. There is no place to turn—not to friends in the same dilemma, not to unions supposedly in place to protect them, and not to management who should serve as a partner.
The nine-member ensemble, in spite of a few line flubs on opening night, brings the painful story to nitty gritty life with the most credible authenticity. First among equals is Kirsten Fitzgerald, for years one of Chicagoland theater’s most commanding performers physically and temperamentally. Fitzgerald runs all the emotional changes on her complex character, from bitterness to a rough-edged comic charm. The rest of the ensemble falls right in step with Fitzgerald’s multifaceted performance—Tyla Abercrumbie (Cynthia), Steve Casillas (Oscar), Mike Cherry (Jason), Ronald L. Connor (the parole officer), Chaon Cross (Jessie), Keith Kupferer (Stan), Edgar Miguel Martinez (Chris), and Andre Teamer (Brucie).
The physical production is outstanding. Kevin Depinet designed the spot-on neighborhood bar interior. Mara Blumenfeld designed the grungy period costumes, Keith Parham the lighting, and Richard Woodbury the sound design.
While Nottage’s language generally is pinpoint in its dramatic (and sometimes comic) impact, there are moments when a character will stop the action to launch a short monologue that serves as a kind of position paper for his or her grievances. The passages are articulate and informative but they interrupt the play’s dramatic flow. Also, the play is one-sided in making management the villain of the workers’ predicament. It would be worthwhile bringing an employer representative on stage to give management’s take on why downsizing and exporting jobs is essential to an industry’s survival. We may not believe the bosses but they deserve a hearing.
To my ear and eye, “Sweat” is telling it like it was for beleaguered American workers during the end of the last century. Nottage has written a major American play and is also a major document on 20th century American social history. And she has created a collection of vibrant dramatic characters actors would kill for.
The show gets a rating of
“Sweat” runs through April 14 at the Goodman (Albert) Theatre at 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $80. Call 312 443 3800 or visit Goodman Theatre.org/Sweat.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!! March 2019
Follow Dan on Twitter
Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago