Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder
The setting is Reading, Pennsylvania, the poorest city in the U.S. according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. Nottage and her director, Kate Whoriskey, built the script and its characters through two years of visits to Reading and interviews with its residents, creating a warm and moving work that puts human faces on the statistics.
The action alternates between scenes in 2008, as Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) and Chris (Tramell Tillman) attempt to put their lives back together after an incident that landed them both in prison, and 2000, showing the events that led up to the incident. Nothing about Sweat is schematic or preachy; it's a chronicle of how people persevere when their circumstances change through no fault of their own.
John Lee Beatty has designed a gorgeously detailed set for the bar where workers from a nearby manufacturing plant congregate after their shifts and celebrate each other's birthdays. Cynthia (Kimberly Scott), Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Tara Mallen) have worked together for decades, propping each other up through divorce and widowhood, but things aren't going well in Reading. Another plant's workers have been out on strike for months and people who would never cross a picket line on principle are forced into doing so by utter necessity.
Nottage skillfully traces the fault lines that develop among the close-knit characters on racial, ethnic, and economic grounds. Both Cynthia, who is African-American, and Tracey, who is white, apply for a management position, leading to resentment from the one who doesn't get the job. Stan (Jack Willis) became a bartender after an accident at the plant left him with a permanent limp. His employee Oscar (Reza Salazar), an immigrant from Colombia, is looking for a better-paying job. Jason and Chris, the respective sons of Tracey and Cynthia, work at the factory but realize that the good times are over.
Scott's performance is the driving force of the play as Cynthia copes with her ex-husband Brucie (Kevin Kenerly) and son while navigating the challenges of a collapsing economy. The entire ensemble does marvelous work, with standout scenes from Day, Spencer, and Tillman.