When Cynthia (Tonye Patano) wakes up on New Year’s Day, her husband Brucie (Chiké Johnson) is gone, along with her prized tropical fish. Brucie is a union employee at a factory in Reading, Pa., where Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning play Sweat (at A.C.T. through Oct. 21). The playwright strands him and the other characters in the middle of the Great Recession when, in 2008, the latest round of contract negotiations between the union and management has fallen apart. Technically, Brucie is still employed, but he’s been locked out of his job for nearly two years. He’s trapped in a professional limbo that’s eaten away at his self-esteem and sense of direction.
While wondering what his next, right move should be, Brucie has developed a drug habit. Without an income or a sense of purpose, his psyche and his marriage have disintegrated (stealing his wife’s belongings so he can get high has hastened its demise). But Reading’s economy as a whole has tanked. Like many of the other residents there, he doesn’t have many other options for making a living in this factory town. Brucie, though, is a minor character in Sweat. His troubles are already in place when the play begins. It’s Cynthia, along with her best friends and co-workers, Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Tracey (Lise Bruneau), who form the core triumvirate of the drama.
Sweat takes place in a neighborhood bar where these longstanding pals hang out after being on their feet all day at the factory. They blow off steam, dance and drink too much. Stan (Rod Gnapp) the barkeeper listens to their complaints and confessions. Once a factory worker himself, an injury on the job left him with a limp and a way out of the dilemma everybody else is in. Also frequenting the bar are Tracey’s son Jason (David Darrow) and his best friend Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris), Cynthia and Brucie’s son. And, in the background, a Puerto Rican busboy named Oscar (Jed Parsario) quietly cleans the ashtrays and picks up the empty glasses of liquor.
From this small group of acquaintances, Nottage carefully constructs the social fabric of an entire community. In this milieu, Brucie’s drug addiction isn’t an exception to the rule. His suffering, though an extreme example, is a harbinger of more problems yet to come. Everyone’s livelihood revolves around the factory. Nottage moves around in time to explain their history and ties to it. But she begins the play in a halfway house. Both Jason and Chris are newly released from prison. Even though they both appear on stage at the same time, Evan (Adrian Roberts), their parole officer, counsels them separately, as if they’re in different rooms. Whatever their crime was, the staging links them together.
Then Sweat moves back in time eight years to lead us toward the offense. The playwright sets up crises that puts this close-knit community at odds with each other. Cynthia, who’s black, and Tracey are both up for a promotion into management and off the factory floor. When Cynthia gets the position, Tracey resents her for it, and at one point, suggests that she got the job because of tokenism. Nottage provides Cynthia with a meaningful rebuttal but when the factory wants to cut back on the workers’ paychecks no one comes out of the conflict unscathed.
Earlier this year, Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley co-produced another play that addresses a similar subject. Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew is also set during the 2008 recession but inside of Detroit’s collapsing auto industry. Faye, the black female protagonist, holds a position of power like Cynthia’s. She’s the union steward caught between her manager Reggie, an old friend of the family, and the co-workers she represents. When Reggie tells her the factory will close at the end of the year, she has to make some tough decisions. I’m bringing up the comparison because Morriseau’s play felt stirring, more urgent and intimate than Nottage’s.
Faye’s homeless. The bank foreclosed on her house and she’s living at the factory on the sly. Her personal predicament speaks for itself. Nottage accomplishes the same thing with Brucie’s plotline: The audience understands his emotional life, why he’s gotten himself into the situation he’s in. But with the rest of the cast, she burdens the play’s exposition with speeches that signal their weightiness and importance. They momentarily fill out character motivations while halting the dramatic momentum of the story. Arguably, Nottage is painting on a larger canvas. Each one of her characters represents some aspect of human fallibility in an economically devastated region of the country. She’s writing the macro version of the story and was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for doing so. Yet it was Morriseau’s gift for spoken language that made Faye a less symbolic and more believable creation than Cynthia.
Sweat, through Oct. 21, at A.C.T., 405 Geary St. $15-$110; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.