By Bill Hirschman
On stage, there are only a few fully American Tragedies with a capital T, kin to Greek tragedies in which protagonists strive in vain against inexorable forces. Maybe Death of a Salesman. Some early O’Neill.
But acclaimed playwright Lynn Nottage interviewed laid off and locked out blue collar workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, then used them as the raw material for a breath-takingly brilliant script that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and easily qualifies as A Great American Tragedy.
Sweat is a stunning neighborhood-level portrayal of how the human-powered industrialization that dominated the United States economy for a century has been decimated by computer mechanization and companies’ merciless willingness to outsource jobs to cheaper labor in Mexico.
Main Street Players’ unsparing edition insightfully tracks the spiraling toilet spin of fictional Reading co-workers from 2000 when they try to ignore the signs to 2008 when the devastation is total, both to their incomes and the substance of their lives. Camaraderie and even close friendships that crossed barriers for two and three decades erode until racism emerges.
The denizens of a working-class bar frequented after steel mill shifts end are just beginning to see hints of the closing vise as conscienceless bottom line factory owners begin demanding sliced paychecks and benefit packages.
To be brutal, Main Street Players’ evolution from a community theater to a professional troupe has produced some fine work like last year’s Topdog/Underdog but others that have been painfully lacking.
Not this time. Director Sefanja Richard Galon has galvanized MSP’s ensemble to achieve perhaps their finest work to date – a deeply affecting indictment featuring naturalistic performances with emotions ranging from fury to surrender.
The play opens in 2008 in which parole officer Evan (Sterling Tribue) is counseling two glowering young men recently released from prison. Jason (Garrett Colon) is a hostile white skinhead with Nazi tattoos, and Chris (Kyran Wright) is a shutdown intense Black man. The specifics of their “unforgiveable” assault that led to their conviction eight years ago will not be revealed for another two hours, but the shadow is always there as we rewind to the year 2000.
The neighborhood bar is operated by Stan (Frank Montoto) who was crippled in the steel mill a few years ago. Now we re-meet the two young men who are solid friends and co-workers at the mill. Chris atypically wants to save money to escape this trap and go to college to become a teacher. Jason wants the two to work together until they’re 50, take their pension and open a Dunkin’ Donuts in Myrtle Beach.
Also trading barbs amid copious shots of liquor are three women in their mid-40s who have bonded while working together at the plant for more than 20 years: Cynthia (Chasity Hart) is Chris’ mother, Tracey (Laura Argo) is Jason’s mother, and Jessie (Jocelyn Lombardo) is currently passed out at a table. Later we’ll meet Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Warren Welds), locked out from another plant during a strike and is now hopelessly lost in a fog of alcohol and drugs.
Their conversation is punctuated with bitter dark humor. One cites the effect of NAFTA deals with Mexico in the news, to which another quips, “NAFTA. Sounds like a laxative.”
Watching it all is busboy Oscar (Phillip Andrew Santiago), whose family is from Colombia, but who was born here and suffers the disdain of the barflies who see him as Puerto Rican immigrant.
The play jumps back and forth in time, but the main thrust is the closing vise as the company starts moving the worker’s crucial machines in the middle of the night, changing locks, then demanding wage and benefit cuts, then threatening to move the entire operation to Mexico.
Ensuing strikes are impotent and financially crippling. But the severest damage may be the sense of being betrayed by the company and their mutual compact. One says when their group is locked out, “They didn’t even have the decency to let us clean out our lockers with dignity.”
The human cost is the meat of what Nottage, Galon and this totally committed cast focus on: dread, fear, anger, confusion, depression over the loss of what they had used to gauge their self-worth – sometimes expressed with fury, sometimes with sorrow, and ultimately with resignation. Although they continue to walk picket lines, one acknowledges, “The writing is on the wall and we’re pretending we can’t read.”
Racial prejudice that seemed laudably absent before, now erupts as a way of venting pain. When one of the three women gets a promotion from the line to the lowest level of supervisor, her very reluctant participation in the company actions severs her lifelong friendships.
This is theater so the play is shot through with monologues in which characters hold forth on some topic. Ostensibly their barmates can hear, but the speeches are actually musing meditations emerging from their interior spirit. Galon has those characters come to the front of the acting area away from the others in the bar.
One of the most affecting such passages is given to Jessie. While everyone except Chris (and to an extent Oscar) have no plans or desire to change the paradigm that has served them and their predecessors for decades, they still have daydreams deferred. Jessie quietly recalls her original plan to work at the plant for few months, then escape with a boyfriend to Alaska, then bum around the world to cities she has only heard of, all murmured like Istanbul, Kandahar, Katmandu – a long list of what might have been remembered wistfully.
Galon paced this corrosion perfectly and imbued its flawed characters with the respect Nottage requires.
He is rewarded by the ensemble giving some of the strongest performances we’ve seen these actors present in the past. It’s not really fair to single out anyone, but special note is earned by Hart and Argo.
Kudos, too, to Amanda Sparhawk for an effective set design on a minimal budget, Angie Esposito for lighting changes to fit the emotional changes, and especially Amanda Ortega’s supremely well-observed costumes down to the hole in the sock of one character whose income has caved.
It may not be Sophocles or Euripedes, but they would appreciate a kindred spirit in Nottage and Main Street Playhouse.
Sweat runs through May 14 at Main Street Playhouse, 6812 Main St., Miami Lakes, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 general admission and $25 for students, seniors and military. The running time is 2 hours 35 minutes including one intermission. Visit mainstreetplayers.com.