‘Sweat’ Captures the Moment

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My election night was better than yours — regardless of your political party. My 16-year-old son and I did the most patriotic and appropriate thing we could do, something way better than watching returns. We caught “Sweat” at Everyman Theatre.

This Lynn Nottage play is about a fictitious Reading, Pennsylvania manufacturing plant shut down in 2000 as its jobs were sent to Mexico. It follows a group of friends and their two adult sons as they seek to understand and cope with this Rust Belt reality.

Well-cast and thought-provoking, the play does what art often accomplishes in contentious times — it creates relatable characters who lead us through the world around us and its non-partisan, human truths.

In his program notes, director Vincent Lancisi writes that while the story happens in Pennsylvania, it could have easily been set in Baltimore. Indeed. At one point, Tracey, a third generation plant worker, talks about dressing up to go shopping downtown, and it evokes every Baltimorean’s nostalgia for Hutzler’s and the other fineries of Howard Street’s shopping district.

She also recalls her grandfather’s woodworking skills, noting with some bitterness to Oscar, a barkeep and Latino who longs to get work at the plant, that her grandfather’s generation was the last one respected for working with its hands.

While every actor fully embodies his or her role, Deborah Hazlett is so familiar in her role as Tracey that I felt like I was watching people I grew up with. Jaben Early’s portrayal of Bruce is wise and poignant, and Kurt Rhoads as Stan is the play’s believable sage, urging the two sons, the next generation of plant workers, to pick up and leave when there is a lockout. Our ancestors knew better, he tells them. They sought new opportunities and moved to find them.

At times in the show, it feels as if  someone left a tape recorder on in Sparrows Point and we’re now listening in on the conversation. Three generations of my family worked at Bethlehem Steel: My father, the first to go to college, became a metallurgist and eventually part of the 1980s team that worked to downsize the mill, until he downsized himself and got another job. I am just one of many for whom this play resonates.

We’re soon entering the holiday season when the entertainment offerings lean toward uplifting and heart-warming. If you have seen any of Nottage’s plays, you know this one does not fall into those categories. But that’s not a reason to stay away. See this play if you have never seen any of Nottage’s work and because it’s well written, it’s well executed and it’s so of the moment, to miss it would be like staying home on election day and not casting a ballot.

 

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