At a recent Habitat for Humanity event in Indiana, former President Jimmy Carter pointed out that in America today, it was rare for those with great wealth to interact with those in need. Given the ticket prices, something similar could be said of contemporary American theater audiences. Lynn Nottage’s working-class drama “Sweat” in some way bridges that gap by putting onstage the lives of working-class, financially strapped factory employees in Reading, Penn., a demographic often overlooked in our theater, and one that was pivotal in the 2016 presidential election.
Nottage famously spent two years visiting Reading to immerse herself in a community left behind by globalization, and the play comes to the Mark Taper Forum (135 N Grand Ave., Los Angeles) with almost unfairly high expectations, having collected a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony nomination for Best Play last year. While director Lisa Peterson’s production falls short of those expectations, there is much to take away from the affecting drama exploring some of the complex fault lines that turned a reliably blue state red. (Full disclosure: Nottage and I were at Brown at the same time, but we’ve never met.)
“Sweat” switches back and forth between 2000 and 2008, starting with two scenes in 2008 where we learn that Jason (Will Hochman), a young white man with white supremacist tattoos on his face, and Chris (Grantham Coleman), a young black man who has found religion, have been released from prison for an unnamed crime committed eight years earlier. While Jason is belligerent and resentful toward his parole officer (Kevin T. Carroll), Chris is polite and deferential, although he’s “not sleeping too good.”
From there the play switches back to 2000, with a series of scenes set a month apart in that year, as we see the events that led up to the young men’s incarceration. Most of the action is set in a local bar, a sprawling, industrial space in Christopher Barreca’s impressive design, where a gang of locals hang out after work at a nearby factory. Cynthia (Portia) is the mother of Chris, and she has put in 24 years “on the floor,” while lifelong friend Tracey (Mary Mara), the mother of Jason, has logged 26 years. Birthday girl Jessie (Amy Pietz) rounds out the trio and drinks way too much. Stan (Michael O’Keefe) has been bartender since a work-related accident ended his time at the factory. Colombian-American Oscar (Peter Mendoza) is the ambitious bar back, working quietly to clean and restock while planning a better life.
The tale unfolds gradually, with small and large resentments accumulating on many sides. When Cynthia applies for a management job, Tracey does the same, even if she doesn’t really want it. When Cynthia is selected, Tracey puts it down to racial preferences and the friendship seems permanently changed. Cynthia’s ex, Brucie (John Earl Jelks), wrestles with addiction, and causes friction with awkward, desperate interactions with both her and Chris.
Looming over the proceedings is the unseen factory, where automation and cutbacks are threatening many of the lives involved. A prolonged strike heightens the tension for all, creating a financial squeeze on top of the emotional conflicts. When Oscar answers an ad for nonunion workers, politics and prejudice prove a combustible combination. Someone’s balance sheet is no doubt improved by the play’s events, but in Nottage’s microscopic examination of the lives underneath the headlines, we see the steep human price of increased profitability.
The cast has mixed results owning Nottage’s challenging dialogue, which often gives characters long, overly self-aware speeches reporting important experiences from their past. Peterson’s staging sometimes leaves actors sitting quietly listening when more reaction and interaction should be allowed. Coleman brings heart and brains to Chris, and we believe he has his sights set on bigger things than a life on the floor. Portia is moving as a woman genuinely striving for a better life, caught between her employer and her friends. Mara’s spunky Tracey grows more nuanced as the play progresses, but too often she is playing to a bigger room than the Taper. Mendoza, whose character travels farther than most in the play’s story, wonderfully captures Oscar’s earnest ambition. One wishes there was more of Brucie in the play, as Jelks – the lone holdover from the Broadway production – is superb as an aging man watching the economy leave him behind.
Yee Eun Nam’s projections help orient us in time, whether it is the 2000 presidential election or the market crash of 2008. Emilio Sosa’s contemporary costumes are perfect, and fight director Steve Rankin is responsible for the evening’s most upsetting surprise, when we finally discover the crime at the heart of the story.
Nottage’s play is not perfect, but it is a powerful exploration of regular Americans fighting displacement and disregard. After the 2016 election results, many people wondered, “How did this happen?” “Sweat” provides some palpable answers.
Directed by Lisa Peterson and written by Lynn Nottage, “Sweat” will play through Oct. 7. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.