Photo: Kevin Berne.


American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco

Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Loretta Greco
Starring Lise Bruneau, David Darrow, Rod Gnapp, Kadeem Ali Harris, Sarah Nina Hayon, Chiké Johnson, Jed Parsario, Tonye Patano, Adrian Roberts
Through October 21, 2018

Written in 2015 by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Lynn Nottage, “Sweat” is a powerful and dramatic look at workers in the Rust Belt facing the demise of their union jobs. With an abundant amount of research and even more skill and talent, Nottage, with able director Loretta Greco, brings to life the hopes and shattered dreams of three women who are long-time workers on the floor of a steel tubing factory in Reading, Pennsylvania.

“Sweat” is set in a local bar, tended by the understanding Stan (outstanding Rod Gnapp) that is the home away from home of the three vividly created women, all played by excellent actors: fun-loving Tracey (Lise Bruneau), determined Cynthia (Tonye Patano) and alcoholic Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon). The bar (effective set by Andrew Boyce, Scenic Designer) is where birthdays are celebrated, steam is let off and conflicts are ironed out. When Cynthia, the only black woman of the three, moves up to management and things start to go south at the plant, whether from NAFTA or plain vanilla superior competition, the longstanding triumvirate is strained beyond hope.

The younger generation is also deeply and adversely affected, since two of the friends’ sons, great buddies themselves, had recently started working at the plant: Tracey’s son Jason (fine David Darrow) and Cynthia’s son Chris (first-rate Kadeem Ali Harris).

In fact, we learn at the beginning of the first act, as we watch a parole officer (Adrian Roberts) interview the young men in 2008, that Jason and Chris had been sent to prison in 2000. The main action of the play then reverts to 2000 as we watch this microcosm of Reading, Pennsylvania from the start to the close of George W. Bush’s presidency — from 2000 until 2008 — from apparent stability to turmoil. Not until near the end of this 140-minute drama is the cause of Jason’s and Chris’s prison sentence revealed.

Although there is a bit of preachiness to “Sweat” in a few monologs, more are poignant, as playwright Nottage never loses sight of the human tragedy that is at the heart of the play. She also possesses some fascinating political insights that presage the 2016 election, as we see mistaken anti-Mexican animus against Oscar (fine work by Jed Parsario), a bar helper who is born in the U.S. of Columbian ancestry. Cynthia’s blackness suddenly becomes an issue for the first time with her promotion, as the friends seek to blame others as they grapple with the loss of self-esteem and their way of life.

One can’t help but be affected by the heartbreak at the center of “Sweat” and wonder what went wrong in Reading. Was it the greedy plant owners who never modernized and retooled to face competition? Was it the grasping union leaders who were content to let the salaries roll in for years without foreseeing the economics that would bring their workers to the brink? Was it the workers who never looked beyond their paychecks to consider the possibility of a bleaker future? Or should the government have stepped in earlier to help? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and Lynn Nottage doesn’t present any. She simply shows us the human cost of shattered lives.

This is creative, dramatic and insightful theater — the kind of theater that makes us remember the characters and think about them days later.

Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.