As cosmopolitan theater-goers, we have the luxury and all too often, the unfortunate oblivion when it comes to feeling the pulse of America’s heartland. Even if, as transplants, we return to our native hometowns, our conscience is somehow anesthetized to the daily harsh realities that far too many in middle America contend with on a daily basis.
Nicholas Kristoff’s recent opinion-editorial piece in the New York Times revealed that America has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world, with a rating of 20.1%. He ended his sharp examination with this admonishment: “Chipping away at these cycles of poverty isn’t easy, and we won’t have perfect success. But we aren’t even trying. We aren’t even paying attention.”
Maybe the collective “we” are not, but thankfully, Lynn Nottage is. Her play Sweat, cracks the lid wide open on economic struggle (not only on children, but on entire communities). Her approach is so gripping that we simply cannot look away. Nottage, with the help of her assistants, journeyed to Reading, Pennsylvania-one of the poorest towns in the country. Here, she collected interviews from residents whose prosperities were dashed when local industrial plants closed. Sweat is the result of those interviews.
From the first few moments of this drama, audiences may not be sure of where this steamboat is headed, but are eerily aware that a sinking ship is imminent. Toggling between 2000 and 2008, it depicts a tight knit group of workers who “work the line” at Olstead’s, a steel tubing factory. When a management position becomes available, Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), decides to apply, creating tense friction from Jessie (Miriam Shor) and Tracey (Johanna Day). Further complications ensue between Tracey’s son, Chris (Will Pullen) Cynthia’s son, Jason (Khris Davis), a Colombian bar back, Oscar (Carlo Alban) and Stan (James Colby), owner of the watering hole.
Kate Whoriskey’s fine direction steers this cast to flawless excellence. As a native of South Central Pennsylvania, there were moments when I felt that I was eavesdropping on former neighbors. Neither she, nor Nottage, diminish or blame her characters for their circumstances, but rather empowers them with understanding, loyalty, and immense heart. One can only hope, given the Public theater’s track record of Broadway transfers, that Sweat will follow suit.
Off Broadway has jumped on the working class trend in recent years with John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair and Lost Girls, Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy, and Dominique Morriseau’s examinations of the cash strapped motor city (Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) They are all important voices and vital theatrical works. However, Nottage’s work may well rise above them as it paints this struggle thoroughly with a combination of raw despair, humor, and emotion.
Is it a quixotic, bleeding heart liberal dream to believe that we can’t improve our country and its’ people? The German composer Robert Schumann once wrote that “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” Nottage obviously agrees and through Sweat, her light couldn’t be brighter. How affirming it is to know that art might be the vehicle to force attention-and ultimately action.
Sweat runs through Dec. 11 @ The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For tickets and information, visit: http://www.publictheater.org/en/Public-Theater-Season/Sweat/.