ACT's 'Sweat' Reaches Its Emotional and Political Limit--Too Soon

Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer-prize winning Sweat, receiving its Bay Area premiere at ACT, is as ambitious as it is conventional and that strangely makes you want to root for it. Set mostly in the year 2000, six years after the implementation of NAFTA, Nottage attempts a sweeping view of the effects of neoliberalism on factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

You might say that we’re in Trump territory before the fact and that in Sweat Nottage is really giving us an origin story. This is what it felt like just before the first snowball started rolling down the mountainside, the moment Reading slipped from a union town to a ghost town in less than a decade.

So we begin in a tenuous Eden. At least that’s the sense you get from best buddies Cynthia and Tracey as they celebrate Tracey’s birthday at their local bar. They are innocents at home, caught in the rhythms and traditions that have sustained them for most of their lives.

They love having a good time, maybe a little too much fun, and if they don’t love their jobs they clearly love the way their work brings them together and creates a community, an identity, a way of being in the world. They have the swagger of skilled workers and the joy they find in each other is infectious—so it’s no surprise that their sons, Chris and Jason, are best friends, too.

That Cynthia and Chris are black and Tracey and Jason white is incidental, though significant to who they are and how they see the world. There’s a kind of primal architecture to the play that’s promising and again it makes you want to like it, to see it come to something significant and real.

After all, there’s a general belief that we need plays like Sweat, socially engaged, forthright, human, and alert to the state of the country. And perhaps that’s where we should begin, with what attracts us to the material and everything in the play that has …

The Power To Fascinate

I guess this is the beginning of a critique, an attempt to get at why Sweat feels so limited and tame, and why we shouldn’t fall for its obvious goodwill and glittery awards. Those are charms that a free audience must always resist. And it made me think of Freddie Brunner, not a character in the play but a character mentioned in passing in the play.

Stan: Oh shit, speaking of arrests, did you guys read about Freddy in the paper this morning?

Cynthia: No, what was Freddy doing in the paper?

Stan: God, you didn’t hear.

Tracey: Nah. What happened?

Stan: He burned his fucking house down.

Freddie comes up again in the second act—

Cynthia: Remember when Freddie Brunner burned down his house.

Stan: Of course.

Cynthia: We thought he was crazy.

Stan: Yeah.

Cynthia: Was he?

Nottage uses the idea of “Freddie Brunner” as an outer limit, the psychic state that all these characters are heading towards or will soon inhabit. But that limit is artistically vague. In a fundamental way, the play’s realistic façade can’t account for the total breakdown of order he represents. He must be mentioned, but he cannot register as truly real and present.

One of Nottage’s major problems as a playwright is how fair and diligent she is. You get the sense that she’s always gauging how audiences will react to the injustices before them, and because of that she keeps a tight rein on her major characters. They do what they’re supposed to do and nothing more. This is also true of her wan reworking of Mother Courage, Ruined, which won the Pulitzer in 2009.

Almost everything in Sweat is a product of subject matter and situation. Only at the edges of the drama do we get anything close to human imagination. You see glimpses of life in some of the minor characters: the drunk Jessie who just wants a kiss on her birthday; Evan, a parole officer with a surprisingly humane and realistic view of the world; and Brucie, Cynthia’s drug addled ex, who may be the most interesting character on stage and certainly the freest.

Thrust to the side of the primary story, these bit players have room to breathe. And because of that they’re kind of fascinating. Or put another way: the further the play gets away from the central drama, the more it roils with actual life.

Though we don’t come close to feeling the heat of Freddie’s spectacular arson party, you can’t help but wishing that you did. Because instead of fire we get …

Research and Understanding

I would argue that understanding is the central aesthetic of Sweat, the quality that the play values the most. It begins in a jail in 2008 and the first scene ends with a cliffhanger: how did these two boys, Chris and Jason, get there. That question is intimately tied to Reading and the economic upheavals that begin to take hold at the end of the 20th century. And so we have to begin to understand factory towns, factory workers, NAFTA, the state of unions, and the intense tribal factions, often racial, of Reading and cities like it.

Explanation becomes the prime dramatic concern—the playwright tells us, rather than trusting that we can intuit and feel our way through the material. Everything feels controlled, deliberate, and perfunctory. We know that Nottage has done a great deal of research, gone to Reading and talked to a lot of people. The program and countless articles tell us so with a kind of awe and reverence. But I would say to what end.

There’s no real philosophy here, there’s no real ideas, there isn’t even anger. People in the play get angry, but the play itself is curiously distant. Everything about Sweat feels meticulously explained, rather than felt, and some of the lines seem culled from interviews rather than the way people actually talk to lifelong friends.

Here’s Cynthia explaining to Stan the bartender about what joining the union meant to her:

You know what’s crazy, when I started at the plant it felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us [African-Americans] worked there. Not us. So when I put on my jacket, I knew I’d accomplished something. I was set. And when I got my union card, you couldn’t tell me anything. Sometimes when I was shopping I would let it slip out of my wallet onto the counter just so folks could see it. I was so proud of it.

Okay, fine, but I don’t think she’s talking like that to Stan, she’s talking like that to Nottage the researcher. It’s just too pat and controlled an explanation for actual friendship.

And the play is too pat for an economic catastrophe, too. Did Nottage really need to go to Reading to get what happened there? And does anyone need to see Sweat to understand that some Americans are getting left behind and turning vicious and ugly? I would rather Nottage get thousands of little facts wrong about Reading if she just believed in something more than a general sense that people are good and the situation is bad.

We need more daring, more belief, more intellectual and political reach, and in Sweat we can see the emotional and philosophical limits of the mainstream drama—and those limits don’t go very far.

If you don’t agree, I’d love to hear your defense of this play and Nottage’s work in general.

‘Sweat’ runs through Oct 21 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here