The Taper is kicking off the 2018-19 season with a strong start, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Sweat.” Written in 2015, “Sweat” has to do with the after effects of NAFTA, modern management style, and the 2008 downturn on a group of steelworkers in Reading Pennsylvania. It is doubtful that many in the Taper audience have had the experience of being in a blue-collar union. But here is the story, vividly told, of people bound together by their union, by their jobs, and their local watering hole, only to be cast aside by the efficiencies of modern management and the global economy. They have strong affective relationships with the plant, with each other, as well as with their jobs. The steel company has only an economic relationship with them. Everyone of them has been devastated by the events; no one has moved on to find another life.
As long as there is economic stability of sorts there’s also relative racial peace and true comradery amongst the workers. As the reality of NAFTA closes in, pieces of equipment are shipped out, rumors spread of jobs to be transferred across the border, and the union loses its power. The fault lines of their ethnic and racial differences begin to open up. With equality and economic security comes true integration. Take away security and the old racial jealousies rear their heads.
NAFTA was signed into law in 1993, but Nottage’s story blames the plant’s downsizing and movement of most of the jobs to Mexico on NAFTA. The action goes back and forth between the comraderies in the relative prosperity of 2000, and the general economic crisis of 2008. Most of the scene is in the neighborhood bar. Scenic Designer Christopher Barreca has created an effective, if cavernous, space and the year is conveniently projected above the set, which is a good thing. The scene switches repeatedly between the two years and the scene breaks are indicated by jarring light projections created by Lighting Designer Anne Militello.
Nottage has created a compelling story. One that has even more meaning now than when it was first produced three years ago. It brings to life experience that few members of the Taper audience have personally felt. For this alone it is worth seeing “Sweat.” One could just wish that an editor had taken a more active role. The over two-and-a-half-hour script would be sharpened by some selective trimming. Empathy does not require long soliloquies. The seeds of addiction and racial strife are obvious early on. “Sweat” is an important story of our time. Tightening would have made it even better dramatically.