In “Sweat,” currently playing somewhere in the airless attic of the Public Theater, Lynn Nottage goes where few playwrights have dared to go — into the heart of working-class America. Her insightfully observed characters all went to the same schools, work at the same factory, drink at the same bar, and are going to hell in the same hand basket. Their jobs, their community, and their way of life are doomed, in director Kate Whoriskey’s mercilessly realistic production, although no one seems to have gotten the message yet.
The entire play takes place on John Lee Beatty’s splendid set of an old neighborhood bar in Reading, Penn., a second home for everyone who works in the factory in this factory town. Stan (a reliable James Colby) owns the place. Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie, friends who work the line together as their families did for three generations, are his best customers.
Tracey (Joanna Day, really committed to the role) talks tough, but seems content to work on the line for the rest of her life, provided she gets regular pay raises and the union continues to protect her benefits. Jessie (Miriam Shor) has no ambitions outside of getting wasted at the end of the week. Only Cynthia (a smart performance from Michelle Wilson) sees her factory job as a way to professional advancement. She applies for a supervisor job and gets it, without realizing the wedge it will create between her and her friends on the line.
None of them, however — not even Cynthia — thinks of looking beyond their day-to-day jobs. That soothsayer role falls to Stan, who reads both the newspapers and the writing on the wall. He’s heard rumors of layoffs and closings at other plants, and tries to alert his bar patrons. “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico,” he warns them.
“They got buttons now that can replace all of us,” someone finally realizes.
Nottage wrote “Sweat” after extensive interviews with people in old factory towns like the one depicted here, which accounts for the solid character work and stretches of realistic dialogue. The plot is less successful for trying to cover every conceivable labor issue, from the failure of collective bargaining and the ultimate collapse of the trade unions to the toll on company towns when the local factory, coal mine, or steel mill goes under. But credit the writer for giving many forgotten Americans a voice.
At Stan’s, the regulars are quick to dismiss the foreboding warnings as management gossip to keep everyone on edge — despite unmistakable signs that some of their neighbors are already cracking under the stress of shortened hours and cutbacks on the factory line. There’s a lot of heavy drinking and drug dependency. One poor guy burns down his own house. But not even a costly and fruitless strike by their union can get through to some people.